Ever since I read Kierkegaard in high school, my life has been influenced by existentialist philosophy. When I attended university, it was in the eraEver since I read Kierkegaard in high school, my life has been influenced by existentialist philosophy. When I attended university, it was in the era of the New Criticism. The ideas were important; the biographies of those who created the ideas were irrelevant. Sarah Bakewell had a similar experience in her encounter with existentialism and phenomenology and thirty years later in life corrected the imbalance with a rereading of the authors in the context of their interrelated lives. Her work is a fascinating study of the ways in which phenomenologists and existentialists influenced each other in the twentieth century. A very readable book about one of the most productive periods in modern philosophy, At the Existentialist Café is a well-written assessment of the contributions of phenomenology and existentialism to our understanding of life and a well-considered evaluation of the lives of those who both thought and lived the philosophies that have done so much to shape our world. ...more
What can one say about such a sophistic (in the modern sense) novel? In this solipsistic work by Breton, we are treated to a name-dropping treatise onWhat can one say about such a sophistic (in the modern sense) novel? In this solipsistic work by Breton, we are treated to a name-dropping treatise on surrealism in the first third, followed by a disturbing (semi-autobiographical) account of his brief love affair with a muse, the eponymous Nadja, in the balance of the book.
Granted that all of us who are engaged in the creative interpretation of reality have had our Nadjas and have benefited therefrom (what would Dante be without Beatrice or Petrarch without Laura?), but Breton seems to see Nadja as merely a tool to enhance his apprehension of the surrealistic nature of life. He does, it is true, inveigh against the institutionalization of those who, like Nadja, have an alternative but nonviolent perception of reality, but he made no effort to rescue the real Nadja ( Léona Camile Ghislaine Delacourt ) from her confinement in a mental institution that lasted fourteen years until her death.
Nadja's drawings, reproduced in the novel among the photographs used by Breton to enhance and ground his surrealistic romp, are extraordinary. What would C. G. Jung have had to say about these? And yet the novel itself is without merit. The prose is clunky (I don't think the translator is to blame), and the structure is absent (there is an inevitable linearity to prose [unlike painting] that requires a certain artistry). It is all very well to philosophically give oneself over to the dream quality of reality and the unleashing of the unconscious provided by automatism, but writing a novel that readers will enjoy requires discipline, logic, and an openness to the gifts provided by a muse. Being human requires that one should care for muses with the same level of love, empathy, and respect that one bestows on any significant other.
In the novel, the author quotes the Latin motto to the third of Berkeley's Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous [Gua de Malves edition]: "Urget aquas vis sursum eadem, flectit que deorum." How very true this is I think Breton may not have realized....more
Despite the resemblance to The Name of the Rose, the prose is not that of Umberto Eco. Nevertheless, it is an intelligent literary mystery, only marreDespite the resemblance to The Name of the Rose, the prose is not that of Umberto Eco. Nevertheless, it is an intelligent literary mystery, only marred in part by some dialogue more suited to romance novels than to true literature. I well remember my first introduction to Lorenzo Valla's exposure of "The Donation of Constantine" as an insidious forgery intended to enhance the authority of the Bishop of Rome. This is the text on which the mystery turns. Add a German Augustinian monk with a love of Wycliffe on the cusp of the Reformation, the advent of the printing press, and La Serenissima and you have a formula for success. For those who love Venice, this will be a fun read. The dénouement occurs in San Marco, in view of the Quadriga, looted from Byzantium. I remember spending hours in contemplation of those four marvelous golden horses and could easily visualize the ending of the book. If you loved The Name of the Rose, you'll like this one. ...more