Tag Archives: Reading

The stuff of Life

word

‘ It was about being true to the very stuff of life, it was about trying to capture, though you never could, the very feel of being alive. It was about finding a language. And it was about being true to the one fact, the one thing only followed from the other, that many things in life – oh so many more than we think – can never be explained at all. ‘ Graham Swift ‘ Mothering Sunday’

This , then , is what I have to bring today. The closing sentences of the book I have just laid down. It did not disappoint. Within its narrative Graham Swift refers to one of my storytelling heroes – Joseph Conrad – who himself has an interesting comment on storytelling, whose quest was ‘ by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel — it is, before all, to make you see. That — and no more, and it is everything. If I succeed, you shall find there according to your deserts: encouragement, consolation, fear, charm — all you demand — and, perhaps, also that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask.’

And the overriding sense I am left with is how fiction gives us permission to be most fully ourselves. I cannot imagine being the me I am without having encountered the characters and the writers I have met throughout my days. Science is mastering many of the facts , we are illuminating the darkness, but only dimly. Science is the first to corroborate how much is still unknown. A particle acts differently dependant upon it being observed – does this strike you as prescient on the human condition? We are and simultaneously are not the person we imagine ourselves to be. The codes we observe do not rely merely on the context of our time and culture, but also on our perception of them and of the fluctuating circumstances. That is confusing, much easier to narrate to you a true account of behaviour which shows how I hold personal codes of truth and loyalty , of fidelity and duty to be central to the person I am and yet act in complete opposition to them, choosing to end one marriage to a wonderful man , and father of my two sons because I had walked blindly into a new relationship where I felt at home. Not even a choice. And reader – I married him.

I haven’t learnt enough just from the handful of people who are present in my life, or who have been there in the past – they are priceless, but they do not bring me the breadth and depth of experience which helps me to understand I can forgive myself for frailty, for impatience, for laziness, for ineptitude. Because I am not alone. Because growing up is not just trying to imitate some version of being human handed down by parents et al, it is about encountering the various selves you inhabit, and allowing yourself not to be intimidated or frightened by them. Listening to voices from elsewhere can somehow bring you closer to knowing how to be your own.

In ‘Mothering Sunday’ Graham Swift practices his alchemy – his narrative is from a woman and it has one of the most authorative voice of being woman I have encountered. He is masterly in how deftly he practices this – the small sentences slipped in that are the ‘tell’ of what it feels like to be 22, free, single, and enjoyably bruised by sexual encounter ( not in a violent, abusive way). On removing from the scene, she mounts her bicycle ‘ slightly sore where she met the saddle’ .

I imagine the novelist’s challenge to himself – inhabiting not only the woman’s pysche at 22, but also later on – in her nineties and remembering. I imagine him imagining the reader – me – enjoying his playfulness, his zest for finding the right word, the correct tone, the piercing stab of the dramatic.

The point I am making, albeit clumsily is this – we need stories to remind us not how to live, but that life is mystery. Inexplicable paradox is what exists around us and about us, and the navigation around this mortal coil is facilitated by the storytellers, the magicians, the soothsayers, the lyric writers, the graffiti artists, the dramatists, the teachers.

There is now such a thing as a bibliotherapy – the art of listening to someone’s personal dilemnas and furnishing them with appropriate bookwear. (bookware?) . Such a stance should please me, but I am contrary enough to find something unsettling in it. Something proscribed – but then why not – we go to doctors, why not book doctors? I have a healthy disposition to challenge anything that is ‘good for me’ , and have only just discovered the heady delight of sucking up oranges. Now I evangelise about oranges. And for me they are the only fruit. I still have a long way to go.

I leave the last words to a woman author of impeccable skills, Marilynne Robinson, author of ‘Housekeeping’, ‘Gilead’ and others you may want to discover.

“While you read this, I am imperishable, somehow more alive than I have ever been.”

That which ‘hath no parts….no magnitude. ‘a.k.a Euclid’s point

John Banting

” Anyway, these ideas or feelings or ramblings had their satisfactions.  They turned the pain of others into memories of one’s own.  They turned pain, which is natural, enduring and eternally triumphant, into personal memory, which  is  human, brief, and eternally elusive.  They turned a brutal story of injustice and abuse , an incoherent howl with no beginning or end, into a neatly structured story in which suicide was always held out as a possibility. They turned flight into freedom, even if freedom meant no more than the perpetuation of flight. They turned chaos into order, even if it was at the cost of what is commonly known as sanity”

It has taken me to page 189 to find a passage that sings.  This is a trial of a book, and I am channelling my resilience in order to discover nuggets such as this.

I have found one more so far – and one that is amusing me .  The link to my own life dilemna is that of finding an engagement present which has more meaning to the recipients than a token of splendid hope for a future of wedded bliss.  I have found my ideal gift in a tableau written by Bolano in which his character re-enacts one of the ready made artworks by Marchel Duchamp. He hangs up a geommetry book on a clothesline in the garden “letting the wind go through the book, choose its own problems, turn and turn out the pages”     Marcel gave this instruction to his sister in law as his wedding gift and in turn she made a painting of it, calling it ‘Marcel’s Unhappy Readymade. Duchamp said it amused him to bring the idea of happy and unhappy into readymades and include the actions and consequences of the elements. So Bolano is referencing the ideas of a surrealist artist , one who said

“What is the solution?  There is no solution because there is no problem. Problem is the invention of man – it is nonsensical” .

And yet it is possible the book Duchamp chose for his readymade artwork was Euclid’s Elements, in whose time it was believed not distinction existed between physical and and geometrical space. Euclid’s definition of a point is “that which hath not parts, or which hath no magnitude”.  This surreal artist has attempted bravely to surmount the inexpressibly bleak meaningless of existence by purporting to draw attention to it, and in doing so produces opportunity for reportage and creative endeavour.  So that book of geometry that is reduced to nothing by the wind and the rain is now an idea in an artists brain, it has been made into a painting, and subsequently into a further exploration yet by a later artist John Banting in his surreal picture, and later still , finds its way into Bolano’s artistic creation. An author who plays with the notion of novel and fiction and reality.  Margins between what is real and what is imagined are blurred, but the interest for me in his writing is how he mirrors the simultaneous mundanity of life with the danger and inherent grotesque realities that invade our lives, as horrors of brutal terrorism and inhumanity are played out daily in all of our lives across the internet and the screen.

Do I dare to to imitate art and give my nephew and his intended an instruction to hang a book of geometry from their washing line, and name it as a gift.  My husband says not.

I think it is the best gift they will ever receive.

The book I am reading is Roberto Bolano’s 2666 and the image is John Bantings ‘Ruin And Clothes line’ 1937, an artist who met Duchamp . Courtesy of  http://www.lissfineart.com

“Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being.”

page five (2)Reading is a vital element of the person I have become.  I have no imagination you see, no innate ability to create a reality other than the one I am in.  I rely on others to do it for me, and have had the good fortune to meet in print authors who have taken me by the hand and led me to places I would never see, and experience lives I will never live. As a young teen I read a biographic account of a young woman’s experience of working abroad amongst torturers and the victims of war. She was tortured herself, and her graphic description has never left me.  She showed me how her life looked, how it feeled, how her faith empowered her.  ( The book was Audacity to Believe, and Sheila Cassidy the writer, she was practising medicine in Chile while Pinochet was in power and was caught up in the horror, for a time she became a nun whilst in recovery from her ordeal.)
 My point is this, that her writing created an opportunity for me to comprehend something I would know nothing about, but which would change my view of the world. That is powerful. That is how writing works.  One of the consequences of a sensibility lacking in imaginative power is that the present moment is the focus.  I am not a planner, nor a traveller, I do not know how to fast forward myself imaginatively into a different context, which has far reaching consequences.  Because I am a poor planner , I have developed a reactive personality, I fall into the next moment carelessly, and move across situations with less anxiety than a planner would.  That is possibly the advantage of a lack of imagination.  It is possibly the only one.  To connect, a person has to have empathy, an ability to look at a possibility only imagined, not experienced, and it is through the extraordinary power of novelists and journalists that I have understood this.  I know empathy can be learnt, because I had to learn it from the pages of books and the leaves of journals, the text of poets and philosophers writing throughout the ages and across cultures.  Not everyone has the cultural background or family circumstances that provides the potential for growth; or the extent of growth that is desired.  The hope for them is in the connections made for them by writers of all genres, released into the world and allowed to be absorbed into the core of themselves. Every writer who writes authentically from their own life is giving away the substance of life.  That’s why writing is hard, and why good writing is handed on generation to generation. Writing not only records our heritage, writing IS our heritage.
David Foster Wallace lived with the realism, possibly the super realism of the depressive. He was aware of the nuances of his own and others thinking, and this is a difficult landscape in which to build a life.  The depressive is not sad, he is dead. That is why Wallace explained that suicide is not a cry for help. It is the rational outcome of a depressives state of mind, the nihilistic understanding that the body continues to function after death of the mind has been experienced, and that is called Hell.  What the depressive forgets in the midst of an episode, is that states of mind are generally temporary.  They function like weather, and like weather, can only be ameliorated and not annihilated.  His was a heroic life, a life where he wanted words to connect, to explain, to give himself some sense of who he was , who he could become, in a world that made no sense.  All our lives are heroic in one sense, that we strive to make sense of an insensible, nonsensical world.  We try, and keep trying because the alternative is one step too far for most of us. David Foster Wallace chose to die.  I respect his choice. I respect his life, his endeavour to communicate. This post began celebrating my early delight in finding a world beyond my immediate experience, and it ends in celebration of all writers who bravely tell us their stories, and reflect our own humanity to us, the flaws, the hopes, the falls and the triumphs.
“Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being.” ― David Foster Wallace

We all suffer alone in the real world. True empathy’s impossible. But if a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character’s pain, we might then also more easily conceive of others identifying with their own. This is nourishing, redemptive; we become less alone inside. It might just be that simple.”― David Foster Wallace

For more answers to the question, go to Aeon with the link below. The above article is my response to it.

Where the spirit meets the bone

miller

 

 

Today I heard Clive James, the well known and loved writer and presenter talk about his imminent death and what he was thinking about while still in the here and now.  His regret centred on not feeling that he had been kind enough, that he had not paid enough attention to generosity of spirit, nor to being a good enough husband .  I expect many of us feel regrets  – some more than others and some without facing death as a close encounter – there must be time for reflection in all of us.  Kindness seems to be an underrated virtue, one almost meeting scorn and mockery in our cynical age.  There’s a tide that may be turning – in the words of Plato – ‘Be Kind, for everyone is fighting a hard battle’.

It may be no coincidence that Clive James is also a poet – it behoves a poet to be reflective, and one of poetry’s great gifts is that it often takes us down a path that leads us to some introverted consideration that questions our behaviours and attitudes.  A good poem is like a shortcut to something we need to know about ourselves, a spotlight that focuses our attention and drives us to exploration.  Poetry is a signpost that can direct us to to where we want to be, to who we want to be.

Richard Porty wrote  in an essay “Pragmatism and Romanticism”;

‘Shortly after finishing “Pragmatism and Romanticism,” I was diagnosed with inoperable pancreatic cancer. Some months after I learned the bad news, I was sitting around having coffee with my elder son and a visiting cousin. My cousin (who is a Baptist minister) asked me whether I had found my thoughts turning toward religious topics, and I said no. “Well, what about philosophy?” my son asked. “No,” I replied, neither the philosophy I had written nor that which I had read seemed to have any particular bearing on my situation. I had no quarrel with Epicurus’s argument that it is irrational to fear death, nor with Heidegger’s suggestion that ontotheology originates in an attempt to evade our mortality. But neither ataraxia (freedom from disturbance) nor Sein zum Tode (being toward death) seemed in point.

 

“Hasn’t anything you’ve read been of any use?” my son persisted. “Yes,” I found myself blurting out, “poetry.” “Which poems?” he asked. I quoted two old chestnuts that I had recently dredged up from memory and been oddly cheered by, the most quoted lines of Swinburne’s “Garden of  Proserpine”:

 

We thank with brief thanksgiving

Whatever gods may be

That no life lives for ever;

That dead men rise up never;

That even the weariest river

Winds somewhere safe to sea.

 

and Landor’s “On His Seventy-Fifth Birthday”:

 

Nature I loved, and next to Nature, Art;

I warmed both hands before the fire of life,

It sinks, and I am ready to depart.’

 

It doesn’t seem melancholy to me to begin to consider the brevity of our lives – it seems sanguine to work out while we still have life how best to use the minutes and seconds.  Life is busy, demanding, inconsiderate in it’s relentless drive to succeed, to impress. I like the impressions of poets and philosophers – they help me get to where I want to be.

Richard Rorty (1931-2007) was an American philosopher best known for revitalizing the school of American pragmatism. He served as a professor emeritus of comparative literature at Stanford and was the author of several books -http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/richard-rorty

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reading is the way. Signposting .

oldnorth

‘Language is the centre of everything and what we do, it’s a fundamental of being human’.

“every reader is, while he is reading, the reader of his own self. The writer’s work is merely a kind of optical instrument which he offers to the reader to enable him to discern what, without his book, he would perhaps never have perceived in himself” -M. Proust

You don’t have to read Proust to know what he is describing here, but it probably helps to recognise how reading affects the qualitative experience of being human, because it really does. And some people are missing out. Reading provides a context from which we can better explore the subjective realities we all live in.  It takes time to build a human – that’s why artificial intelligence still has a long road to travel.  Time, patience and compassion. There is an apparent paradox that the activity of reading brings out the true – in reading fictive lives the reader is learning compassion in their own realities, the exploration from the armchair is as powerful as the journey of long haul flight’s destination – and all readers know this. Proust realises in Time Regained that

“[I]n all perception there exists a barrier as a result of which there is never absolute contact between reality and our intelligence”.

From the time of our first story we learn how our world may look different to others, that we experience through our personal senses and that these differ dependant on who you are born to, where you are in the world, when you live.  This is possibly the foundation upon which the human experience is subjectively different to other species.  I suspect the foundation has other substantive components to it, but I am discussing the value of language here.  When Proust spends his time describing past experiences he is wanting to explore the depth of his imaginings understanding that the subjective experience of everything relies on the layers of memory and associations with it.  And so we too can take pleasure in the understanding that our contact with nature or mathematics or love is embedded in the personal narrative we bring to it, we are not having to live in an impersonal world of the rational mind, which only describes the ‘thing’ and not the feeling that the ‘thing’ triggers. We are all looking for those “intermittencies of the heart,”  amongst our  ‘dog eared maps of desire’, and that’s o.k.!  Within ‘ Time Regained’ Proust is seeking to uncover and experience “[f]ragments of existence withdrawn from Time” in order to live more fully. That appears to be his aim – to live more fully. To live more fully, shouldn’t one turn ones attention to living rather than writing?  Not if writing is what brings meaning. Proust exhorts us to engage, to dig deep, to immerse in experience. He did.

Proust is a mountaineer and we cannot all follow his individual path up the mountain, but his message is valid and important – we can transform our experiences by what we bring to them, and if we bring to them the values inherent in authentic works of art, we too can recognise our own moments of illumination to be of value.  An artist is working in metaphor in order that he gives us easier maps to read our own atlases; the poet, the author treads those maps tirelessly and becomes practised with them in order that we communicate with one another. And the magic is this – the artist communicates that which is beyond language, using language, knowing it is just the tool of something infinitely more complex, more interesting, more mysterious. Thus music moves us when we cannot play a note, and poets sing melodies of solace and yearning beyond meaning. I read Eliot long before I knew a poem even held meaning.  That is magic and mystery

working on

“Books are good company. Nothing is more human than a book.”

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 ”I have spent my life watching, not to see beyond the world, merely to see, great mystery, what is plainly before my eyes. I think the concept of transcendence is based on a misreading of creation. With all respect to heaven, the scene of the miracle is here, among us. The eternal as an idea is much less preposterous than time, and this very fact should seize our attention.”

Marilynn Robinson, with  ‘her quiet brilliance’ writes about a ‘ profound consideration of a life, without any fanfare’ in ‘Lila’, the third book narrating the voice of John Ames wife.

The author introduced us to the small American town  of Gilead in her second  novel which was a resounding success following up from a novel ‘Housekeeping’ written two decades earlier and earning her a nomination for the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. The recurrent message that the author communicates is complicated, as is life. It is hopeless, and full of hope.  A paradox that is biblical in its incomprehensiveness.  That kind of sums up her writing and the reason it works so luminously. It is a mirror to our own experience, that life can be simultaneously filled with horror, trauma, insignificance, hope and joy.  The overwhelming sense the reader comes away with is one of recognition wherever and whenever that reader happened to live.

Lila illustrates what Robinson described in  ‘Home’ as humanity’s “odd capacity for destitution,” “as if we are shockingly unclothed when we lack the complacencies of ordinary life. In destitution, even of feeling or purpose, a human being is more hauntingly human.”  We can only ask “how the soul could be put at ease, restored. At home. But the soul finds its own home if it ever has a home at all.”

All three novels present loneliness as the human condition, suggesting that if our imprisonment within our own perspectives tempts us toward judgmentalism, then compassion is the best palliative.

John Ames in ‘Gilead’ is a man in search of wisdom from the story of his own life’.  Robinson’s treatment of her characters is compassionate, and that is the imperative of life that this reader shares with the author – the hope that in despair and suffering, the miracle of being human saves us – redeems us, even if   redemption we need is from our own fears and natures themselves.

One of the joys in reading her books comes from that ‘quiet brilliance’ that can narrate the ordinary, the slow, the mundane in such a way that life becomes more meaningful for it’s lack of ‘bling’, and not less.  The lack of sensationalism somehow underlines the sensibilities that accompany most of us in coming to terms with living ordinary lives. What I seem to value are those qualities that carry us through the tedium of a job, the trials of parenting, the petty dramas of relating to those closest to us – that soul search that impels us to be better, kinder, more loving human beings. I think these books carry that message too.  Read them if you havn’t, read them again if you have. Let me know if the world seemed different or not.

Unnoticed and necessary.

 

 

IMG_1530watercolour version

Purleigh, Essex.Anne Corr Digital watercolour.

 

Variations on the Word “Sleep”

 I would like to watch you sleeping,
 which may not happen.
 I would like to watch you,
 sleeping. I would like to sleep
 with you, to enter
 your sleep as its smooth dark wave
 slides over my head

 and walk with you through that lucent
 wavering forest of bluegreen leaves
 with its watery sun & three moons
 towards the cave where you must descend,
 towards your worst fear

 I would like to give you the silver
 branch, the small white flower, the one
 word that will protect you
 from the grief at the center
 of your dream, from the grief
 at the center. I would like to follow
 you up the long stairway
 again & become
 the boat that would row you back
 carefully, a flame
 in two cupped hands
 to where your body lies
 beside me, and you enter
 it as easily as breathing in

 I would like to be the air
 that inhabits you for a moment
 only. I would like to be that unnoticed
 & that necessary.

Margaret Atwood