In The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm, Wallace Stevens wrote of a warm evening in which "The reader became the book; and summer night/ Was like the conscious being of the book". Quite the fantasy. Even if they fall short of the poet's meditative immediacy, this season's reveries and revelries often come from words. Not doorstop faux-interviews or foolish text messages or drunken mumblings, but books.
Christmas merges with the unpunctuated days of new year and school holidays, and the idle languor of heat, offering hours for reading. My inbox and Twitter timelines are a Jenga of people's holiday stacks: pulpy bestsellers, foxed classics, forgotten masterworks, orgiastic cookbooks, and so on. It seems trivial, but these few days (or weeks) can be a brief interruption of ordinary business; a chance to turn away from the taken-for-granted, and encounter foreign concepts and impressions – or perhaps some familiar, forgotten ideas, put with new panache.
I just picked up Eric Jarosinski's marvellous Nein: A Manifesto, and read it in one afternoon. Jarosinski, a scholar of modern German literature and thought, has provided an unusual but brilliant summer paperback. Anyone expecting Jamesian paragraphs will be disappointed, as Nein is just over a hundred pages of sparseness: aphorisms, definitions, quips. What began as Jarosinski's distraction from academe, as the Twitter personality @NeinQuarterly, has become a job of its own: an oddly nihilistic persona with the face of philosopher Theodor Adorno.
Jarosinski takes the gloomy analyses of Adorno and his Frankfurt School comrades, along with the greats of German philosophy and literature, and combines them with deliberate sentimentality, conflicted desire and oddly relaxed ennui. Take the first aphorism from Nein:
Only two problems with the world today.
1. The world.
And 2. Today.
Three, if you count tomorrow.
It begins with a seemingly consoling fact, then turns this into an indictment of everything we have. But wait, there's more: this everything will continue, and there's no hope. But there is hope of a stripe, because we're laughing. Many of Jarosinski's aphorisms have this quality, of offering a dismal portrait of existence while nudging the reader to smile.
It is a brief, suggestive alternative to confident ministerial slogans, inspirational Instagram photos, or the gelatinous wisdom of "they", the anonymous authority – and it does so without offering itself up as an easy, final solution. Another:
A world without turmoil.
Again, the promise of something glorious, which turns out to be the annihilation of the creatures making the promise –without, however, getting rid of the strange pleasure of the vision itself.
Nein is, at its best, a study in ambivalence and contradiction: facing up to twinned urges or ideals, and refusing to falsely ease their tensions. "In ridiculing, inverting or saying no to the cliches of politics and the catchphrases of pop culture,'' Jarosinski told the Los Angeles Times, "maybe it's also somehow creating a space, however playful, to envision what else could take their place". Some of these are in-jokes for humanities scholars, but there are enough general observations to keep my 10-year-old son chortling.
In this, Nein is a frustrating case for those who lament the decline of thought and the shrinking of prose – two trends they see as linked. The small is taken to be identical to the shallow. And certainly in political soundbites and advertising slogans it is: these are often manipulative, designed to promise more than they can ever deliver. They do not reward thought, they seek to hinder it with slick truisms or opportunistic branding.
But the success of @NeinQuarterly is a reminder that miniatures are not necessarily superficial or deceitful. These tiny works arrest the easy flow of ideas, and invite concentration and reflection. Like George Szirtes' poetry or Nietzsche's aphoristic philosophy, they are brief eruptions of much deeper concerns. The reader's job is not simply to nod and move on, but to abide, meditate, think again. At the very least, to attend more fully to the knots and tangles usually stuffed in the cupboard of the working year.
Dare to dream this way, fellow nightmares.
Damon Young is a philosopher and author. His next book will be The Art of Reading, due out in April.