‘Was I a man or a jerk?’

Art, books, literature

 

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Saul Bellow’s own words on his impending death…and who to judge? But the man was a tour de force in his own lifetime and this is a portion of his speech when he received the Nobel prize for Literature.  He says it best.

 

‘What is at the center now? At the moment, neither art nor science but mankind determining, in confusion and obscurity, whether it will endure or go under. The whole species – everybody – has gotten into the act. At such a time it is essential to lighten ourselves, to dump encumbrances, including the encumbrances of education and all organized platitudes, to make judgments of our own, to perform acts of our own. Conrad was right to appeal to that part of our being which is a gift. We must hunt for that under the wreckage of many systems. The failure of those systems may bring a blessed and necessary release from formulations, from an over-defined and misleading consciousness. With increasing frequency I dismiss as merely respectable opinions I have long held – or thought I held – and try to discern what I have really lived by, and what others live by. As for Hegel’s art freed from “seriousness” and glowing on the margins, raising the soul above painful involvement in the limitations of reality through the serenity of form, that can exist nowhere now, during this struggle for survival. However, it is not as though the people who engaged in this struggle had only a rudimentary humanity, without culture, and knew nothing of art. Our very vices, our mutilations, show how rich we are in thought and culture. How much we know. How much we even feel. The struggle that convulses us makes us want to simplify, to reconsider, to eliminate the tragic weakness which prevented writers – and readers – from being at once simple and true.

Writers are greatly respected. The intelligent public is wonderfully patient with them, continues to read them and endures disappointment after disappointment, waiting to hear from art what it does not hear from theology, philosophy, social theory, and what it cannot hear from pure science. Out of the struggle at the center has come an immense, painful longing for a broader, more flexible, fuller, more coherent, more comprehensive account of what we human beings are, who we are, and what this life is for. At the center humankind struggles with collective powers for its freedom, the individual struggles with dehumanization for the possession of his soul. If writers do not come again into the center it will not be because the center is pre-empted. It is not. They are free to enter. If they so wish….

The essence of our real condition, the complexity, the confusion, the pain of it is shown to us in glimpses, in what Proust and Tolstoy thought of as “true impressions”. This essence reveals, and then conceals itself. When it goes away it leaves us again in doubt. But we never seem to lose our connection with the depths from which these glimpses come. The sense of our real powers, powers we seem to derive from the universe itself, also comes and goes. We are reluctant to talk about this because there is nothing we can prove, because our language is inadequate and because few people are willing to risk talking about it. They would have to say, “There is a spirit” and that is taboo. So almost everyone keeps quiet about it, although almost everyone is aware of it.

 for every human being there is a diversity of existences, that the single existence is itself an illusion in part, that these many existences signify something, tend to something, fulfill something; it promises us meaning, harmony and even justice. What Conrad said was true, art attempts to find in the universe, in matter as well as in the facts of life, what is fundamental, enduring, essential.”’

 

Saul Bellow acceptance speech

 

 

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The stuff of Life

blogging, books, daily living, literature, reading, United Kingdom, writers

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‘ 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.”

Notes to Self

blogging, Life, literature, philosophy, Thoughts, zen

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The guy who wrote the original did so in Greek, but was actually an intellectual Roman who was to govern Rome after succeeding the Emperor Antoninus Pius, spending a couple of decades trying to placate the Senate and put down minor rebellions. It was some time ago.

Marcus Aurelius lives long in the mind – this is a book that belongs in the bookshelves of the great and the good throughout history – it has shaped the thinking of men. And yet it was not written for publication – it was written as an ongoing discourse with himself as to how to live a life, how to wrestle with the challenges that being human brings , a ‘design for living’. He is setting  out his set of rules, quite unaware that it would become a key text in later attempting to understand the Roman Stoic philosophy.

 

I am fascinated how threads of understanding weave themselves through history – occurring separately to thinkers from disparate cultures and times – and how those threads resonate generations later, making a fascinating complexity of human thought spinning itself through time and place.

I am reminded of these words,

Knee-deep in the cosmic overwhelm, I’m stricken

by the ricochet wonder of it all: the plain

everythingness of everything, in cahoots

with the everythingness of everything else.       Carl Sagan  ‘Diffraction’

and from Edgar Allen Poe

 “that space and duration are one”

‘ that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask.’

Art, blogging, books, literature

art

“I know that character exists from the outside alone. I know that inside the body there’s just temperature. So how do you build your soul?”      Sheila Heti

We all start from this premise I suspect; exactly how do we experience what it means to be human? As opposed to being merely a productive unit, or animal or more commonly simply maintaining a sustained presence on the planet without falling into penury, debt or criminal behaviour.

I shall make this easier for you, at least in defining how the battle may be fought.  Read. Read more.  Read widely. Read thoughtfully. Did I mention reading?  Writers and artists have been mining their own characters and talents in attempting to illuminate the same question.  Some have come up with diamonds, others with less dazzling results.  Joseph Conrad wrote fabulous stories that were underpinned with a deep understanding of the human condition, and an observation of human activity that created classics.  Here he is on his own art,

But the artist appeals to that part of our being which is not dependent on wisdom; to that in us which is a gift and not an acquisition — and, therefore, more permanently enduring. He speaks to our capacity for delight and wonder, to the sense of mystery surrounding our lives; to our sense of pity, and beauty, and pain; to the latent feeling of fellowship with all creation — and to the subtle but invincible conviction of solidarity that knits together the loneliness of innumerable hearts, to the solidarity in dreams, in joy, in sorrow, in aspirations, in illusions, in hope, in fear, which binds men to each other, which binds together all humanity — the dead to the living and the living to the unborn.-

–My task which I am trying to achieve is, 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.

‘ that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask.’   That is a phrase that sends shudders down my spine.

David Foster Wallace is hailed as the writer of and for his generation,- his biographer D.T.Max writes ‘The only thing that seems clear from this novel ( ‘The Pale King) is that boredom is more than a harmless discomfort. The fight against it expresses a need to secure the vitality of the self at all costs.’

It is an irony that Wallace’s writing is  widely requoted as though he was the purveyor of Truth and Wisdom, mainly since his speech in 2005,“This is Water”, which he delivered as the Kenyon College Commencement address . In the speech, Wallace advises the undergraduates that they can choose how to make meaning out of their lives. In the tides of boredom that wash over us in our daily lives, Wallace declares that anyone who harnesses the power of his own attention is king:

“You can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness.”

Wallace took to literature in an attempt to grasp hold of his own life, his depressive episodes.  The current trend to read his novels as paths of truth is to simplify the man and the writer, but readers read, and writers write. I like this short passage by Wallace himself, on writing, Wallace tells Larry McCaffery in Conversations with David Foster Wallace. “In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness.”

 

D. T. Max
EVERY LOVE STORY IS A GHOST STORY
A Life of David Foster Wallace
352pp. Granta Books. £20.

Reminder No.4 – Series One

blogging, Life, literature, philosophy, poetry

thoreau

Take up your pen, it is indeed mightier than the sword.

Life

tumblr_lonx3sKHFw1qji737o1_1280Reading is a vital element of the person I have become.  I have no imagination yon 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 wriiting 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.  Thats 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