Saturday, August 28, 2010

'It will be said that these are overly complicated remarks': a few notes on reading Heidegger's Being and Time (although not so much on Being and Time itself)

1. I've always disliked Beckett. Then someone told me that to understand Beckett, you have to read Being and Time. So I read Being and Time. Then I read some more Beckett. I still dislike Beckett. But I'm glad I read Being and Time. (There is no primary evidence, by the way, that Beckett himself had any interest in Heidegger.)

2. I read it in six days, at a rate of 12 or 13 pages an hour. I don't think there's really any other way to read it but continuously: your eyes have to adjust to the light down there. By the end of the first day, I had a sense of pleasant mental exhaustion. By the end of the sixth day, I felt as if I'd been interrogated by secret police. It's a truism, but this book is extraordinarily hard. I didn't understand much of the second half. If I hadn't done a degree in analytic philosophy, I don't think I would have understood much of the first half.

3. Back at university, I was only really familiar with Heidegger as a whipping boy for logical positivism (which is, simply put, the notion that unless a statement can be verified somehow, it has no meaning, a position developed by AJ Ayer in Language, Truth and Logic when he was only 24). Carnap famously quoted Heidegger's declaration 'The nothing itself nothings' as an example of why philosophy needed a positivist emetic, and I was looking forward to getting to that bit, but then I found out it's not from Being and Time.

4. Logical positivism as a stark rule has long since been discarded, but logical positivism as a general demeanour still hangs around places like Cambridge. That's a good thing, but it does mean it can be difficult, after an analytic training, to take continental philosophy at all seriously. In fact, the only continental philosophers I can tolerate are guys like Baudrillard and Zizek who don't take themselves at all seriously. This is a shame, because I'd like to read the others – I sometimes feel as if I've been inoculated against a disease I wouldn't mind contracting. Heidegger was mostly OK in this respect, although he is pretty cloudy a lot of the time.

5. The biggest obstacle, of course, is Heidegger's language. For one thing, he's so blithe about redefining words: 'guilt', 'ecstasy' and 'freedom', for instance, mean things here that have almost nothing to do with their familiar usage, and I don't think it's the translator's fault. Then there are all the untranslatable Germanic compound words. Guess what 'the ownmost nonrelational potentiality-of-being-not-to-be-bypassed' is a synonym for. Anyone? No? It means 'death'. And he uses it a lot.

6. In fact, sometimes this book was so hair-greyingly laborious that the only way to stay sane was to look for accidental pop culture references. 'Not only is the call meant for him who is summoned “without regard to his person,” the caller, too, remains in striking indefiniteness. It not only fails to answer question about name, status, origin, and repute, but also leaves not the slightest possibility of making the call familiar...' The calls are coming from inside the house!

7. Also: 'What we are alarmed about is initially something known and familiar. But when what threatens has the character of something completely unfamiliar, fear becomes horror. And when something threatening is encountered in the aspect of the horrible, and at the same time is encountered as something alarming, suddenness, fear becomes terror.' The hermeneutics of HP Lovecraft?

8. Finally, Heidegger's constant use of A. inverted commas B. rhetorical questions and C. the word 'relevance' reminded me quite often of Hipster Runoff. 'What is proved in this demonstration? What is the meaning of confirming this statement? Do we perhaps ascertain an agreement between “knowledge or “what is known” with the thing on the wall?... To what is the speaker related when he judges without perceiving the picture, but “only representing” it? Possibly to “representations”?'

9. On the other hand, there are lots of moments of clunky accidental poetry. 'Beings nearest at hand can be met up with in taking care of things as unusable, as improperly adapted for their specific use. Tools turn out to be damaged, their material unusable.' Later on: 'When we do not find something in its place, the region of that place often becomes explicitly accessible as such for the first time. Space... belongs to beings themselves as their place. Bare space is still veiled.'

10. And I loved this little excuse for why it's all such hard going. 'We can see the stunning character of the formulations with which their philosophers challenged the Greeks. Since our powers are essentially inferior, and also since the area of being to be disclosed ontologically is far more difficult than that presented to the Greeks, the complexity of our concept-formation and the severity of our expression will increase.'

11. Every so often, Heidegger will make a totally unexpected swoop from pure metaphysics down to some social or political point that seems to be fairly specifically about his own time and place. For instance, in chapter four, one minute he's explaining the abstract concept of 'entanglement' and the next minute there's this: 'In utilising public transportation, in the use of information services such as the newspaper, every other is like the next... In this inconspicuousness and unascertainability, the “they” unfolds its true dictatorship. We enjoy ourselves and have fun the way they enjoy themselves. We read, see, and judge literature and art the way they see and judge. But we also withdraw from the “great mass” the way they withdraw, we find “shocking” what they find shocking... This averageness, which prescribes what can and may be ventured, watches over every exception which thrusts itself to the fore. Every priority is noiselessly squashed. Overnight, everything primordial is flattened down as something long since known. Everything gained by a struggle becomes something to be manipulated. Every mystery loses its power.' Some of that, you think, could have come straight out of Adorno. Some of it could have come straight out of Nietzsche. And then with a shudder you remember Heidegger's Nazi years and you start thinking of other sources entirely.

12. Being and Time was supposed to be twice as long, but (to widespread relief, presumably) Heidegger never wrote the second half. Which makes it perhaps the only masterwork in the history of philosophy that ends on a genuine cliffhanger.

13. So what did I think about Heidegger's actual metaphysical argument? About the great double act, Being and Time? About his relationship with literary modernism? No bloody idea. I think I'd have to read a lot of secondary material before I'd even attempt to formulate an original observation. But just as the methods of philosophers like Ayers and Quine and Rawls have stayed with me for years in a way that I never would have expected when I was trudging through them at university, I'm hoping that Heidegger will have made at least some so-far-unconfirmed permanent impression. So Being and Time is totally worth a read, if you're willing to give up a full week of your life and quite a lot of ripe, healthy brain matter.

Update: 14. The day after publishing this post, I picked up, for no particular reason, my copy of Barthelme's Sixty Stories, opened it at random, and straight away found this: 'Heidegger suggests that "Nothing nothings" - a calm, sensible idea with which Sartre, among others, disagrees. (What Heidegger thinks about nothing is not nothing.) Heidegger points us toward dread. Having borrowed a cup of dread from Kierkegaard, he spills it, and in the spreading stain he finds (like a tea-leaf reader) Nothing. Original dread, for Heidegger, is what intolerabilises all of what-is, offering us a momentary glimpse of what is not, finally a way of bumping into Being. But Heidegger is far too grand for us; he applaud his daring but are ourselves performing a homelier task, making a list.'

Friday, August 27, 2010

Boxer, Beetle is among ten novels longlisted for the Guardian first book award. They interviewed me for the article. I'm pleased to see Rebecca Hunt there too: we are both represented by Lutyens & Rubinstein, so I've already read Mr Chartwell, which is terrific, and we will be doing a reading together on September 15th.

Friday, August 20, 2010

This week I've been guestblogging at the excellent It's Nice That. Note: of the four things I claim therein that I had "planned this week", I have failed to accomplish three, which is why you should never let anyone ask you that question in an interview.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Bad manners indeed to gloat for too long over your own reviews, but if you saw me speak at the Lion Boxing Club last week you may be interested in these two paragraphs from today's papers. (And if you didn't: well, I hope to write a lot more about this topic in the future, so consider this an overture.) Firstly, from Peter Aspden's review of Whatever Happened to Modernism? by Gabriel Josipovici in the Financial Times:

"The best contemporary fiction fizzes with multiplicities, ambiguities and playful experiments with form. It surely does not need to keep reminding us of its own anxieties. It would make for a dull and angst-ridden literary universe that was permanently and ostentatiously wrestling with its own inadequacies. That may keep academics in work, but it would bore the hell out of the rest of us. The market for disenchantment is a limited one."

Secondly, from Scarlett Thomas' review of my own book in the Guardian:

"The "well-made" realist novel has been thoroughly picked over lately, and many commentators have wondered why writers persist with, as Coetzee puts it, 'its plot and its characters and its settings'. Some have said the realist novel is dead, or just boring. But... great realist fiction has always been about messing with reality – exposing it, heightening it, exploring it, smashing it up a bit, turning it inside out and shaking it to get a better look at it. It doesn't always have to be "realistic", but it does need to be compassionate... Because we are emotionally involved in the drama of the novel and its characters, we can more meaningfully engage with its thematic questions."

(And an odd coincidence that will be of interest to no one but myself and a few school friends: the review I've just quoted has been printed right next to a review of a poetry collection by Lachlan Mackinnon, my old A-level English teacher.)

Thursday, August 12, 2010

James M Cain at MGM:

'One morning around nine-thirty there was a knock on the door. Cain said, "Come in," the door opened, and there appeared "this collegiate-looking character, in Hollywood slacks and lounge coat."

"Mr. Cain?" said the man.

"Yes," replied Cain.

"I'm Scott Fitzgerald – just dropped in to say hello and welcome you to the lot."

"Oh, thanks."

"Well," said Fitzgerald, and backed out the door.

Then Cain got to thinking that was hardly any way to treat the great Scott Fitzgerald, so around noon he went down the hall, found Fitzgerald's name on a door, knocked, and was invited in. Fitzgerald was not doing anything; he was just walking around, no secretary with him. Cain suggested lunch, and without saying anything, Fitzgerald nodded and came out. They went to the commissary and took their seats, with Cain chatting amiably, until he realised that Fitzgerald had said nothing and was saying nothing. "He just sat staring at me."

Finally Cain said, "Well, nice seeing you," stood up, paid his check, and left. Later, someone who knew Fitzgerald – John O'Hara, Cain recalled – told Cain that Fitzgerald probably figured "you were pitying him for being a has-been and had invited him to lunch for that reason." Whatever it was, said Cain, it was the most uncomfortable hour he ever spent in his life. He never saw Fitzgerald again.'

from Cain by Roy Hoopes

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Here are some photos from last week's launch of Boxer, Beetle, taken by the brilliant Nick Seaton, who also took my author photos.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Monomethylhydrazine is a rocket fuel used in the Orbital Manoeuvring System of the NASA Space Shuttle. It can also cause vomiting, delirium, coma and even death after it is metabolised in the human body from the gyromitrin in Gyromitra esculenta, the false morel sometimes known as the brain mushroom or turban fungus (above). And it has a "chemical relative" with the gangsterish name of unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine. What a compound!

Friday, August 06, 2010

Boxer, Beetle is officially out! The night before last we had a party at the Lion Boxing Club in Hoxton. On Monday I will be reading at an event called To Hell with the Lighthouse at Peter Parker's Rock'n'Roll Club in Soho, along with Natasha Solomons and Adam Thirlwell. And here is an interview with me by blogger Lija Kresowaty.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Winner of the UK Writers' Guild Award for Best Fiction Book 2011.

Winner of the Goldberg Prize 2012.

Shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award 2010.

Shortlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize 2011.

Some reviews of Boxer, Beetle:


"Astonishingly assured... confident, droll... well observed... funny, touching... real flair and invention... Many first novels are judged promising. Boxer, Beetle arrives fully formed: original, exhilarating and hugely enjoyable." - Peter Parker, Sunday Times

"Wildly subversive" - Godfrey Smith, Sunday Times

"Gripping and clever... taut, thematically rich and extremely well written... It's clear from this compelling debut that Beauman can perform the complicated paradoxical trick required of the best 21st-century realist novelists: to take an old and predictable structure and allow it to produce new and unpredictable connections." - Scarlett Thomas, The Guardian

"Dazzling." - Claire Armitstead, The Guardian"

Prodigiously clever and energetically entertaining." - Adam Foulds, The Guardian

"Exuberantly clever and ingenious... energetic... witty." - Isobel Montgomery, The Guardian

"Staggeringly energetic intellectual slapstick... crammed with strange, funny and interesting things." - Sam Leith, The Guardian

"Riotous." - Justine Jordan, The Guardian

"Exuberant... wild originality... terrific." - The Times

"Dazzling... impressive... exhilarating... a fine debut: clever, inventive, intelligently structured... an enjoyable, high-octane read." - Rob Sharp, Independent on Sunday

"Frighteningly assured." - Katy Guest, Independent on Sunday

"Probably the most politically incorrect novel of the decade - as well as the funniest... monstrous misfits with ugly motives are beautifully rendered in a novel where Beauman’s scrupulous research is deftly threaded through serious themes in a laugh-out-loud-on-the-train history lesson." - Sunday Telegraph"

A debut with the whiff of a cult classic... ferociously imaginative... his killer irony evokes early Evelyn Waugh... this is humour that goes beyond black, careening off into regions of darkness to deliver the funniest new book I've read in a year or two." - Peter Carty, The Independent

"Uproarious." - Boyd Tonkin, The Independent

"A rambunctious, deftly plotted delight of a debut." - The Observer

"Very funny... ambitious and energetic." - The Daily Telegraph

"An assured debut... Beauman writes with wit and verve." - Carl Wilkinson, The Financial Times

"Clever... an enjoyable confection: witty, ludicrous and entertaining." – James Urquhart, The Financial Times

"A real knockout... dazzling... one of the best novels of the year... ingeniously constructed and utterly readable." - Leo Robson, The Daily Express

"Intelligent... impressive... this would be a brilliant debut from anyone, regardless of their age. As it is, I can only gape in admiration at a new writing force and wonder what he's going to produce next." - The Daily Mail

"Dazzling... compellingly tragic... darkly funny... an utterly unique work that marks the London-based author out as an exciting new voice in fiction." - The List (Edinburgh)

"Witty, erudite... articulate and original... often gobsmackingly smutty." - Time Out

"Fantastically precocious... a witty, fascinating, romping read." - Word

"Dizzying." - The Big Issue

"Very funny." – Times Literary Supplement

"Curiously entertaining... Ned Beauman's debut novel Boxer, Beetle has got everyone talking." - Evening Standard

"Confident and accomplished... Beauman writes like a dream." - Camden New Journal

"Startlingly original and written with compelling energy." – Edward Stourton, chair of the Desmond Elliott Prize judges

Named as one of the ten most promising UK debuts by The Culture Show 2011.


"Boxer, Beetle is driven by a rapacious and addictive hilarity... brilliant... Beauman's writing is as elegant and sharp as the narrative is wild." - The Age (Melbourne)


"A premise as wonderfully outlandish as any we’ve seen in a long while... oddball and rambunctious... funny, raw and stylish." – The New York Times

Pick of the week, starred review. "An ebullient and thrilling narrative... Irreverent, profane and very funny. Best of all, he writes prose that... has the power to startle, no small feat in a debut." - Publisher's Weekly

Starred review. "A bizarre and funny mystery that is filled with eccentric scholarship." - Booklist

"The story wonderfully mocks eugenics and fascism, while the writing bursts with imaginative metaphors... Quirky, comical, brilliant." - Kirkus Reviews

"A romp across the decades, with quirky characters and a complex, darkly humorous story." - Library Journal

"Amusing and rampageous." – NPR