The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison

Image result for the empathy exams leslie jamisonI hadn’t planned to read this book. I have a friend who sent me a copy and as I’m trying to keep on top of any ‘new’ books I acquire (not adding to the TBR list) and as the gift of a book is ever an act of extreme kindness, I decided to read it straight away. I had no idea what to expect, it wasn’t a book that was on my radar, I hadn’t heard of the writer and I had no clue what the book was about except that it must have something to do with empathy unless the title was one of those obscure ones or a quotation lifted from something else (Tigers in Red Weather being a good example of this, I have been intrigued as to how a story could have generated from that unusual little poem by Stevens, or if it shares any connection to it at all beyond that arresting line. I don’t believe it is a story about a sailor drunk and asleep in his boots. That being said, I still haven’t read it). Long-winded aside…aside, I was very pleasantly impressed with this book and very grateful to my friend for being my friend (always) and for sending it to me.

The Empathy Exams is a series of essays exploring different aspects of empathy, the way empathy arises, how it fails, what we expect of it and what we can’t. Each essay takes a different angle on the subject, sometimes only loosely linked but always linked in some form. The book begins with a story of how Jamison has acted as a ‘medical actor’, a job which requires her to act sick so that trainee doctors can learn to elicit information to generate a diagnosis. Part of the testing involves scoring the trainees for the degree of empathy they express so that, ultimately, they can better diagnose a patient, as Jamison explains “empathy isn’t just remembering to say that must really be hard – it’s figuring out how to bring difficulty into the light so it can be seen at all.” The essay then morphs into certain events from Jamison’s life – her abortion and the discovery of a heart condition which occurred almost simultaneously – and how those events have revealed, or exposed, her own need for empathy and the tricks and tools she used to try to get it, as we all do. “I needed something from the world I didn’t know how to ask for. I needed people – Dave, a doctor, anyone – to deliver my feelings back to me in a form that was legible. Which is a superlative kind of empathy to seek, or to supply; an empathy that rearticulates more clearly what it’s shown.”

From there she goes on to explore empathy from another angle when she spends some time at a conference for people suffering from Morgellons disease, a condition which is believed by the medical community to be a kind of delusion in which people believe their skin is infected with parasites but for which there is (or may be) no evidence. Here Jamison explores the (understandable) need for people to be believed, to believe that the symptoms they’re experiencing a real – and by real this means generated via an external cause, something which has been done to them or an agent acting upon them. This reminded me strongly of Suzanne O’Sullivan’s It’s All in Your Head which explored another condition apparently without external cause, and the experiences of the sufferers were similar in many respects. Jamison both shows the pain of the sufferers, and their needs and their hopes, as well as her own response to them, her attempts to be empathetic and the ways in which this succeeds or fails.

Further essays explore the efforts of poets living in the crime zones of Mexico, a series of essays called “Pain Tours” which cover the way in which the pain of others is explored as entertainment or some kind of spectacle – visiting the silver mines of Cerro Rico, a tour of the hood, interventionist television shows (and, one could argue, crime fiction!); and in the second section the way art elicits or explores aspects of pain which references Frida Kahlo, Joan Didion, James Agee. There are essays on the bad reputation of excessive sentiment, extreme running races, a friend in prison. But it was, for me, the final two essays which really stood out. The first of these is called Lost Boys and it explores a series of documentaries called Paradise Lost which focuses on the conviction of three boys for the murder of three other boys, a conviction which was later overturned. It is a powerful piece which examines the issue from the perspective of the victims, the victims’ families, the convicted boys, the documentary makers (and the way they will elicit a particular view through clever editing, something which anyone who listened to the podcast Serial will, perhaps, understand), the police. Jamison considers why it is that we somehow need a simple narrative, that we require cause and effect which in the case of crime more specifically equates to motive and how in the absence of motive we resort to even simpler (or arguably more complex) narratives like ‘evil’ or ‘satanism’. In this short essay she shows the infinite complexity of such a subject, how we want to make it simple but it is never simple.

The last essay called A Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain is similarly powerful, exploring the complexity of female pain as spectacle, as a source of attraction, the reality of pain being something experienced, and the many ways in which it is responded to. She explores this through a series of ‘wounds’, each wound being a kind of pain or a response to pain experienced by women; things like anorexia (though anorexia and other kinds of eating disorder are a growing issue for young boys too), like periods, like the way in which female pain is dismissed both by men and by women and, perhaps more disturbingly, by doctors or the officiating community. In Wound 7, Jamison makes reference to the TV show Girls and how it reflects the female reaction to the idea of the ‘wounded’, frail woman:

“These girls aren’t wounded so much as post-wounded, and I see their sisters everywhere. They’re over it. I am not a melodramatic person. God help the woman who is. What I’ll call “post-wounded” isn’t a shift in deep feeling (we understand these women still hurt) but a shift away from wounded affect – these women are aware that “woundedness” is overdone and overrated. They are wary of melodrama so they stay numb or clever instead. Post-wounded women make jokes about being wounded or get impatient with women who hurts too much. The post-wounded woman conducts herself as if pre-empting certain accusations: don’t cry too loud, don’t play victim, don’t act the old role all over again. Don’t ask for pain meds you don’t need; don’t give those doctors another reason to doubt the other women on their examination tables.”

It is a narrative I recognise, the idea that expressing pain is ‘melodramatic’ and that hiding it is the way to move past pain, to excessively hide it. I’ve been there, I’ve been impatient with friends in pain or, perhaps, who I have perceived as being excessively in pain, and I suspect I am not alone in that either. Subtly, and relentlessly, Jamison makes a case for feeling, for women to express their feelings not because the idea of a ‘frail’ or ‘wounded’ woman is appealing (I’m reminded of Mary Oliver’s essay on the subject of Poe’s fiction here, which involved a repeated image of the pale, slender, ghostly woman that may also have been representative of both his mother and step-mother) but because it is simply what they feel, that they should not be quashed by accusations of melodrama. It made me think about what it is about the pain of others which makes people, and I include myself in this, so uncomfortable – think about the reactionism to feminist claims of rape culture, or men’s rights activists demanding a role for fathers in their children’s lives. The idea that my pain > your pain means that one person must give whilst the other always takes, I wonder how much this is at root of so many of our difficulties in understanding the griefs of others and, perhaps, doing something about it. I don’t know any answers, but Jamison’s book certainly got me thinking.

This book made for a fascinating interruption from my expected reading schedule. It is thought-provoking, beautifully written and soulfully honest. Jamison lays out her own pain and the pain of others, not as a spectacle but as a request for understanding and empathy. Because if we give empathy, we’re more likely to receive it, and surely this has always got to be better than the alternative?

Posted in essays, non-fiction | 4 Comments

Upstream by Mary Oliver

Image result for upstream mary oliver“And this is what I learned: that the world’s otherness is antidote to confusion, that standing within this otherness – the beauty and the mystery of the world, out in the fields or deep inside books – can re-dignify the worst-stung heart.”

Mary Oliver is probably most famous for her poetry which is celebratory, rapturous and reverential and which is some of the most lovely poetry I’ve ever read and suffers, if suffer is the right word, from lacking negativity and glitz and for its humane and generous spirit. Which is another way of saying that despite her Pulitzer Prize there are elements of the poetic establishment which don’t take her very seriously. I love Mary Oliver’s poetry which is centred, rooted in the natural world, in which she explores the life of snakes and starfish and owls and in so doing reveals something truthful and majestic about human life and human experience, so you can imagine my absolute pleasure when I discovered that she also had a collection of essays, Upstream, which equally celebrated and explored and glorified the natural world. Amongst other things. Upstream is one of the few books I’ve bought this year, in total I’ve bought only three (for myself, I have gifted others. A birthday, without books, is birthday not worth having) and one of them was another copy of a book I already owned (though a beautiful one) and the other was a mistake. But I digress.

Upstream is one of those books which sits right in the middle of what I’m currently thinking and feeling and desiring. It is a book which reflects on the powerful, nurturing and exciting ways in which the natural world, and our connection to it, can shape our lives. It is a book about art and the place of art in moving the world forward. It is about our literary friends and the way that certain books, certain writers, become ingrained in our existence such that we cannot separate ourselves from them. It is rich with observations and sensations, it is, in places, a little disturbing and it is reflective and as beautiful as Oliver’s poems are. Each essay is a nugget of something, a reminder, perhaps, of how to reconnect with ourselves and with the world around us, using all of our senses and explorative powers. It is about centring ourselves in our lives and discovering who we are through it. It is about reminding ourselves who we are and how to bring meaning to our lives.

“With growth into adulthood, responsibilities claimed me, so many heavy coats. I didn’t choose them. I don’t fault them, but it took time to reject them. Now in the spring I kneel, I put my face into the packets of violets, the dampness, the freshness, the sense of ever-ness.”

The book is split into five discreet sections, each focusing on a particular subject or essays which touch upon, or dance around, certain aspects of Oliver’s thinking. There’s a nebulousness to it, a sense that certain essays about belong in other sections but for whatever reason, maybe a vague intuition, Oliver has placed it where she has. The first section centres around her youth, influences on her youth and her discovery of the power of nature and the longing for poetry. In this she references her explorations, her love of Walt Whitman (who I have now bumped up my ‘to read’ list, having, for some time, had a copy of Leaves of Grass waiting to be read), and her discovery of poetry and her creative life. One of the essays, Power and Time, is a brilliant primer for anyone interested in developing a creative, artistic life and a powerful essay in itself. In it Oliver sets out the different aspects of herself: the child, the ordinary and regular person, and the creative artist and the way each of them shape and define her. But it is the last, the artistic soul, which dominates and which demands that she set aside ordinary and regular things so that her art can grow. As she describes:

“The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.”

Sigh. I suspect there are many of us that recognise the call that we set aside so we could make dentists appointments or dinner, or arrange birthday parties or presents, or pay the bills and such things. This essay I returned to several times because it is so straightforward and so honest and so compelling in its identification of how to pursue art, if art is what you think you are capable of.

The second section is based around water – pond and the sea and the creatures that live within it. There’s an essay called Sister Turtle which I think might disturb some people for reasons I won’t go into here but which show Oliver’s behaviour towards the natural world to be consistently explorative, but explorative in a way which is, perhaps, uncommon. If that sounds mysterious and vague it is quite deliberately so. The third part focuses on particular writers: Emerson, Whitman, Poe, Wordsworth and her exploration of Poe in particular is interesting though I enjoyed her work on Emerson much more. The fourth part is more of a jumble of nature essays focusing on birds, light and building and this, too, includes a particularly powerful essay called Winter Hours in which Oliver explores the way her mind has turned to something like faith, or rather something which is not empirical knowledge or reason, and how this is shaping her interests. As she explains:

“Knowledge has entertained me and it has shaped me and it has failed me. Something in me still starves. In what is probably the most serious inquiry of my life, I have begun to look past reason, past the provable, in other directions. Now I think there is only one subject worth my attention and that is precognition of the spiritual side of the world and, within this recognition, the condition of my own spiritual state. I am not talking about having faith necessarily, although one hopes to. What I mean by spirituality is not theology, but attitude. Such interest nourishes me beyond the finest compendium of facts. In my mind now, in any comparison of demonstrated truths and unproven but vivid intuitions, the truths lose.”

And I think this resonates with me because I feel something similar, as she says “Something in me still starves”, and I feel this too, not exactly that something is missing but that I have permitted something which I previously held to let go. I am grasping for something and in this grasping, this exploration, I am finding something which I had forgotten and I think that something is the joy and the compelling darkness of the unknown, of the excitement of questions and investigation, of plundering some uncertain depths, digging your hands into the mire, just to see what is there. And this thing, whatever it is, is connected to writing and, I think, rediscovering the version of me which is a writer. And it is all new and interesting and scary, and somehow Oliver, the great writer that she is, captures it though her capturing is as askew as the little house she builds for the sheer pleasure of it. But pleasure it is, messy and glorious and unnameable.

I am so very glad I caved and invested in a copy of Upstream. I know it is a book I will treasure for a long time to come, as I treasure my book of her poetry. And I could not write, here, about Mary Oliver and not include a poem, because it is what she is known for after all, and her poems are lovely. And maybe you’ve never read one. So just in case, here’s possibly her most famous: Wild Geese. Enjoy.

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Posted in essays, nature, non-fiction, poetry | 12 Comments

When The Trees Say Nothing by Thomas Merton

“I am free, free, a wild being, and that is all I can ever really be.”

I came across the name Thomas Merton when reading Sara Maitland’s A Book of Silence and it is a name I logged in my mind as one to come back to. Merton was Trappist Monk, most famous for his book The Seven Storey Mountain which describes his conversion from an ordinary, perhaps conventionally successful, life to that of a silent monk in a Trappist order. Well, kind of silent. Perhaps he exercised the power of non-speaking, but he certainly wrote prodigiously, which is good for us because it has resulted in this legacy of material to read.

When The Trees Say Nothing is a collection of Merton’s writings about nature. It appears to have been pulled together after his death, pulled from his other writings elsewhere and it is collected into themes: Seasons, Elements, Firmaments, Creatures, Festivals, Presences. Each observation is a small snippet, an observation of birds or bees or a moment caught in a thunderstorm, and Merton describes these things with simplicity and reverence, not surprising, perhaps, given his vocation. It has, as you might expect, religious overtures, but these are not overly intrusive and describe, I think, something which I might describe in a slightly different way – a moment of transcendence or connection. I think what I’m saying here is that even without a religious expectation or desire, his emotional response is recognisable and whilst I do not share his philosophy I can share his joy. It is a simple book, nothing flashy or ambitious and yet it is strangely beautiful and compelling. I found myself wondering why it is that we do not revere the kind of simplicity he describes, or the simple reverence with which he expresses it. There is space in literature for every kind of transgression or drama – crime, violence, manipulation, cruelty – yet little space, or recognition for books of simple joy and love. If more of us could live like Merton – quietly, minimally, joyfully – perhaps we would have more joy and respect in the world, perhaps we would think about poverty differently, not as material absence but an absence of contentment and connection. But these thoughts, perhaps, are too discontented in themselves to explore further. If Merton tells us anything it is that we can only fix the world by first fixing ourselves, by learning how to be filled with joy and care and love.

Image result for when the trees say nothing

I realised that there is both little I can say about this book, and yet also a great deal. But I thought, too, that perhaps the best way to both describe and pay homage to Merton’s writing is by emulation. I decided to keep a Merton-esque diary alongside my week of reading, so that I, too, can learn to observe and explore and revere our beautiful world. As Merton describes: “… it is absurd to inquire after my function in the world, or whether I have one, as long as I am not first of all alive and awake.” I chose to be alive and awake for one ordinary week. This is the result.

30th April

On the way back from the cinema, on the slip road down towards the motorway, I saw a group of deer leaping across the fields. A brown flash against the brown humps of the field, turned for cultivation. They were small, females I think, and I watched them for the second they were visible, their dun bodies flecked with white, their limber leaping, a flash of graceful wildness, and I felt privileged that such wildness is still accessible even as I sped down the concrete road onto a larger concrete road where I was carried away, the moment a mere memory.

1st May

It is a bright day. The blue sky is washed white here and there with cirrus clouds and the light has turned the higher branches of the eucalyptus tree a vivid green. I see the occasional butterfly. The Mexican Orange is in bloom – bright white clusters of flowers against a light green foliage contrasted against the darker green of the recently painted fence. It is peaceful to sit in the library watching the world evolve outside. I can hear the bubbling of my wine fermenting, the faint odour of sweet alcohol like a boozy breath in the air. Outside there is birdsong, intermittent and fleeting. The garden is in shadow, but the sun’s light is vivid on the houses backing onto our garden. The bricks grow orange and ochre and on the roof there is a blackbird, all glossy and singing loud. Spring can be such light and vivid luminosity. Who needs more than this?

2nd May

The beech tree has now come fully into leaf and it is bright and green and the leaves, which drape from the white branches, dangle down like fronds of thick, green hair. The fronds dance in the wind, though the tree itself, whilst leaning at the trunk, is sturdy. This lean is a legacy of the high winds we experienced in the early days of the village, a combination of the flat landscape and the lack of anything to interrupt it, but building work has gentled the flow and the new trees planted grow straight. The tree looks as though someone has pushed it down as it grew. It is convenient for the neighbourhood cats who compete for its ownership, dominance over its branches filled with the potential of birds which they are too ungainly to catch. The bark on the trunk is gnarled and cracked, like it has been burned and what remains is the charred remnants of bark; it makes easy climbing for the be-clawed cats. I love this tree. It has grown house height, but I have known it since it was a mere sapling and it is lush and healthy and strong and it supports the birds and insects and even the bickering cats and it will be there when I am not, reaching its branches towards the stars.

3rd May

It is another gorgeous morning. The sun hangs bright and fat over the dewy fields; fields that speed by my window too fast to register; fields full of cows that would not be there if it wasn’t for the fact that we exploit them. It makes me sad to know that I will never see a field of wild cows, that the environment I love is shaped entirely by its utility to us, that the grassy hillocks exist because we desire it and the stream flows where it is most useful, that there is so little which is truly wild and that which is ekes out an existence on the fringes of all we have claimed and I think, then, of the wonder of the flash of birds’ wings, of butterflies and bees and wasps and all the flying crawling things that we ignore and so flourish until we see them as vermin and exterminate them. It is so arrogant this idea that we can own or claim anything, that we have ‘rights’ over the land. The land exists without us. It will grow over our bones, over the ashes of our bones. The glorious sun will warm it long into the future. Maybe there will be herds of wild cows after all. It is a comfort to think it is possible, even if I shall never experience it.

4th May

Another train journey, another few hours of speeding through countryside, towns, past wetlands and ploughed fields, bright acres awash with yellow flowers. I see cows, sheep, geese, a heavy-bodied heron flying in its ungainly fashion towards a body of water where it will land and transform into its usual, graceful form. Blue sky, washed white where the sun is moving towards the horizon. I enjoy the different gradations of blue, the white sweepings of cirrus clouds, a single contrail, bright and broken like a child’s attempt at drawing a line. Few trees. Dun stubble in a field not yet ready for planting. It is so quiet it is possible to imagine that I am not on a train, yet impossible to forget I am not alone.

5th May

I ‘ve been walking around Manchester thinking about Thomas Merton and how he says that we talk about the weather perhaps in order to truly feel the day and how if he hasn’t felt the day, felt like a part of it, then the day has been lost, and with the sun bright in the sky and the wind cool on my back, my hair rising like Medusa’s snakes, I feel like I have swallowed a nugget of pure truth. I realise this is what is missing from virtual space, from virtual interactions: the focus on the mind as pure reason, pure communication, by definition cuts out all of these other sensations which make it real. I can feel the blisters beginning to rise on my heels – a burning, ticklish sensation – my feet pressing against the base of my shoe with a slight grainy feeling, as though there is a layer of sand left over from a long-ago trip to the beach. My arms swing, the blood rushes to my fingers making them more sensitive except that my hands are cold. In spite of the brightness, the clear vivid blueness of the sky, it is chilly. But I don’t care. I have the one minute seventeen second brilliance of The OA main theme on repeat in my ears and I feel a sense of euphoria lifting my steps, my mouth, my mind, my eyes. I am happy. I am thinking of the power of healing, of nurturing, themes which resonate through The OA, which I finished watching for the second time yesterday, and through me. I am lifted, I am healed. I transcend, not through dance – though I can see how that would work – but through walking on this wonderful day feeling every second of it.

6th May

Clouds lie heavy in the sky today. It has been cool, thankfully. We have been painting the shed; it is therapeutic work and nice to work outside in the cool air. I watched the cat climb the buddleia and chew the grass. Paint splatters everywhere, under my nails and in my hair and the smell a little greasy and chalked. When I paint I notice little except the chill wind and the ache in my shoulder which I know will be worse later. Arm moving back and forth. The golden wood turns blue. It grows dark quickly, the clouds are a white stain on the sky but it will not rain. It hasn’t rained in some time, I’m not sure how long. The contrast in the weather is strangely welcome, though there is always something wonderful about blue skies and sunshine. I enjoy the oppressive sensation the clouds create, the threat of something dramatic.

Posted in nature, non-fiction, religion | 6 Comments

Decreation by Anne Carson

It’s a long time since I’ve gone out of my way to read a book of poetry (which this isn’t quite exactly, but poetry enough); Anne Carson has kind of jumped into my head, one of those mental worms that wriggles around and wriggles around until you can’t ignore it anymore. Fortunately one of the libraries I raid had two books by Carson: The Beauty of the Husband, which is pure poetry and very very good, and Decreation which is a blend of poetry, essays, opera and screenplay and other forms I can’t even name. The Beauty of the Husband is very good, but Decreation, perhaps because of its blend of different forms, is something else entirely.

The theme ‘decreation’ stems from an idea of Simone Weil’s, a way of “undo[ing] the creature in us” as a method for removing the self so that the Being can properly encounter God’s light. As Carson explains:

“Decreation us an undoing of the creature in us – the creature enclosed in self and defined by self. But to undo self one must move through self, to the very inside of its definition.”

The idea of decreation is nebulous, intentionally so as Weil offers neither a single definition nor a clear view of how to achieve it or how to recognise it when you do, though I suspect it is something we all recognise in some way. I have experienced what I would recognise as ‘decreation’ through reading certain books, for example. A moment when my self seemed to dissipate and I was open, blank and receiving. I would not, personally, interpret this as being ‘exposed to God’s light’ as Weil does, but I think I understand what she means. But it is nebulous, and such nebulous terms are fertile territory for a wild poet’s mind. Carson explores this idea ‘decreation’ in various different forms. Decreation through sleep. Decreation through art. Decreation through madness. Decreation through eclipse (the decreation of sun and moon). Decreation through love. Decreation through exposure to God. The exploration of sleep, the way Carson explores life from the ‘sleep side’ is absolutely fascinating. In it Carson uses Woolf and Homer to explore how we decreate via sleep, how sleep enables us to enter a different state of being in which the usual forms of logic, the usual methods of dealing with the world, no longer apply. None of this is particularly surprising, but the way Carson breaks it down is. For example, in exploring Socrates dreams in the days before his death, Carson reveals:

“As if he had slept in the temple of Asklepios, Socrates emerges from his dream “seeing with both eyes.” And he does not hesitate to trust what the woman in white has let him see, though Krito dismisses it. The woman in white will turn out to be correct. Socrates is inclined to trust, and to be correct about trusting, different sources of knowledge than other philosophers do – like his crazy daimon, or the oracle of Apollo, not to say the good sentences of sleep. Socrates also puts a fair amount of faith in his own poetic imagination – his power to turn nothing into something.”

Here she shows how trusting in ‘sleep side’ or alternative sources of ‘knowledge’ is a strength in those willing to trust it, that accepting one version of reality alone is to accept a limited source of knowledge and, thus, miss the fullness of knowledge that’s available to you. Socrates may die that day or in two days time, this is irrelevant. How he approaches his death is his power, and the point, really, of Plato telling us about him at all.

Each of Carson’s explorations takes a different form, though the essays were most interesting to me and a long form poem on a work of art called Seated Figure With Red Angle by Betty Goodwin which includes such arresting lines as:

“If body is always deep but deepest at its surface.

If conditionals are of two kinds factual and contrafactual.

If you’re pushing, pushing and then it begins to pull you.

If police in that city burnt off people’s hands with a blowtorch.

If quite darkly coloured or reddish (bodies) swim there.

If afterwards she would sit the way a very old person sits, with no pants on, confused.

If you reach in, if you burrow, if you risk wiping in.

If a point that has been fed over years becomes a little bit alive.

If the seated figure started out with an idea of interrogation.

If there was a quality of very strong electric light.

If you had the idea of interrogation.

If interrogation is a desire to get information which is not given or not given freely.”

And so it goes on, exploring, burrowing, digging into the mind. There’s an abstract and a concrete element to Carson’s poetry, some of it is hard to follow but it is always rhythmic and the depth and inventiveness of it is extraordinary.

One of the things I noticed as I read was how many of Carson’s influences, the other writers she explores, were female. She cites Woolf (extensively, making me need to read The Haunted House), Dillard, Weil, Sappho and a 12th Century French mystic named Marguerite Porete who, on account of her ‘heretical’ writings, was burned at the stake. But she also references Homer, Plato (exploring Socrates), the movie director Antonioni, Keats (who appears to be a regular influence, his hand hovering over all of The Beauty of the Husband), Beckett. Her gaze is wide ranging and interrogative, and her expression controlled and yet daring. I think this is the most glaring thing about Carson’s work, its sheer daring. She observes, in the fourth part of a three part essay, that the women – Sappho, Porete and Weil – all of who sought to decreate to bring themselves closer to ‘God’ had an extraordinary sense of daring, that they had “the nerve to enter a zone of absolute spiritual daring”. Yet I would argue that Carson, too, has entered a zone of intellectual and linguistic daring into which few can follow. Hopefully, unlike her counterparts, she is not burned as a ‘fake woman’ but even if she was I do not think she would care at all. Carson is on a different plane to the rest of us, her mind dances and connects and forms beautiful works of art with words in whatever form seems most appropriate: essay, poem, opera, rhapsody. It is bewildering and exciting, incomprehensible at times but aspirationally I think repeat readings would reveal more and more if its beauty and meaning. A book to return to, which is pretty much the qualifier for me of whether poetry is good or not. Carson is good. Read her.

Posted in philosophy, poetry | 5 Comments

On wanting to read more

I realise that I may have made it sound like reading fewer books has been a breeze and in a way it has, but there’s another side to the story. Isn’t there always? That’s the power of stories, there’s always more than one thread and more than one perspective and even a single set of events can have multiple interpretations. But I digress. Recently I have found myself thinking a lot about reading more, about slipping back into that habit of guzzling down books one after another, chomping them down as quickly as I can so that I can move on to the next one and the next one and the next one. My list of desired reads keeps on growing, my library list has 38 books on it, my Hive list has 26. At my current pace that’s more than a year’s worth of reading. And there’s more. I recently reorganised my library, I wanted to see if I could even begin to consider limiting my ‘to keep’ collection of books to no more than 50. I also wanted to split out the books I haven’t yet read from the books I have read and which I might want to keep but probably need to be read again. I’m a long way from where I hoped I would be. My absolute must keep list of books numbers around 150, though I could trim that down, but that was without counting poetry or short story collections, or my signed editions or my orange Penguins which I can’t yet bear to consider parting with. My unread books numbered 215 which was not quite as bad as I was expecting. Without buying or borrowing another book I have enough material to keep me going for a many years, but those other books, the books I do not own, are oh so very, very tempting.

Right now I am resisting the urge to pre-order Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, which is being re-published in June. I know I would like to read it, I love The Argonauts, and I could squeeze Bluets into my reading schedule quite easily. But then I also think the same about the books I have borrowed from the library, not to mention those sitting in my living room bookcase which are my top priority reads. I want to buy Bluets, I have come so close to doing so, but so far I have managed to resist.

I keep thinking about how there are so many things I’d like to learn, and how restricting and channelling my reading prevents me from doing so. This is a lie, of course. I can still learn without adding to my reading list. I have thought about how I might allow myself to read educational material on top of my one book per week. Then I thought about how easy it would be to ‘adjust’ my definition of what is ‘educational’ (because most of what I read is, in some form, even if indirectly) so that it encompassed all the non-fiction I want to read. Suddenly I realise it would be so easy to drift back into reading two books a week and it hits me: the reason I decided to restrict my reading in the first place – because I was swamped, because I was absorbing so little of what I read, because I cannot read everything and there will always be books I will not and can not read because I am finite and, perhaps, it is better to absorb the ones I read rather than try to read everything. None of these things have changed, but I realise I have started thinking quite seriously about allowing them to be forgotten, to give myself permission to slip a little bit – a book bought here, maybe the occasional second book in a week, perhaps just trimming back to one book every six days rather than seven. None of these things are the challenge that I set myself, though any of them could have been and there’s an arbitrariness to my choice which is, on occasion, extremely notable. Here I begin to surprise myself at my deviousness, my persuasive skills and the ease with which I defeat myself, all my plans and work and hopes.

I am not going to do any of those things; I will stick to my plan, I am learning too much about myself from just making this one little change and it’s true that what I do read is more meaningful and that I am reading more sparingly but with greater intensity and because of this it is proving a rewarding experience. Restricting my reading has had greater impact than just reducing the number of books I read and buy, I have found myself living more deliberately in other aspects of my life and I am starting to feel like an intended rather than a habitual person and this is all so good. I have found time to do other things like winemaking or gardening, and I have more thinking and reflecting time which is almost as valuable as meditation in helping me unwind. Yet it would be wrong to present this scaling back as entirely easy. It is so tempting to slide back into those comfortable habits, the habits that did not form in a vacuum. Perhaps, after nearly four months of reading more slowly, this is the time when it becomes most challenging, where I am most vulnerable, and I could so easily say ‘I have achieved this, I have nothing more to prove’ and go back to how things were before. I think that would be a mistake, and I won’t allow myself to do it. Instead I am working on strategies. Writing this is one of them. Before I borrow a book or buy one I try to test myself, I say ‘no, put it to one side and if you still want it next week then perhaps you can buy/borrow it then’ and most times I find that the urge slips away and the next week I no longer desire it in the same way. Sometimes I do, if I do I might add it to one of my lists. Not buying books has proven to be one of my success stories. I keep a journal. I have done this in the past though patchily, but now my journal has become a kind of strengthening tool. In it I write down my desires, my weaknesses, my needs and wants and then I rationalise them. I tell myself to be proud of what I’ve achieved so far, and that I can keep it up. I can keep it up for a year and then I can decide if I want to make another change then, but if I do I will be doing so having broken the habit and having, in so far as it is possible, not permitted myself to slip. It is, I think, a little like meditation. The mind wanders, you can’t help it, but when you meditate you make an effort to notice and gently encourage your mind back to the present, to stay focused on the moment. I feel like my effort to read less is like that. It’s like a meditation, but with books. My mind wanders, I desire more and more, but I gently encourage myself to focus back on the present. Just this book, this one, and when I’ve given it enough attention and time then I can move on to the next one.

Posted in personal reflection | 5 Comments

Lost Paradise by Cees Nooteboom (translated by Susan Massotty)

“That is what everyone has always been looking for, isn’t it? A lost paradise?”

Several years ago before they refurbished and made soulless Manchester’s Central Library, pulping a significant proportion of what was an eclectic and varied collection, I happened across this slender, unassuming little book and unwittingly opened a door I didn’t expect to. I still remember the way I felt reading this book for the first time, the sense of something extraordinary happening, a kind of ecstasy, though as Alma – the main character in the first section of the book – comments “One cannot talk about ecstasy” – yet this is exactly how it felt, like I had opened a portal to another way of existing, a place in which my nerves vibrated at the slightest breath of air and the colours were brighter and everything, even the smallest thing, was so much more than I could have ever imagined. I lived for the next couple of days in this strangely heightened mental state and then bumped back to earth, and to this day I do not know why or how it happened or what it was, but I went and bought that little book, a fortuitous choice as the Central Library copy became one of the many victims of the pulp, and it has become one I regularly return to. I have never achieved quite that state again, I suspect it was a one-time thing, but this book still has the power to move me in a way which is inexplicable, unknowable and I wish I could figure out, but then if I did perhaps the magic would be lost and on balance I’d rather have the magic.

“Who banned angels from our thoughts?”

The inspiration for Lost Paradise is made plain by Nooteboom in the prologue, a strange little interval in the opening to the second part, and the epilogue all of which could perhaps be discarded except that Nooteboom obviously wanted them there. These post-modernist sections into which the writer, the inspiration for the stories and their various characters and locations, are interjected stand as an odd framing device to two otherwise brief but powerful stories. It’s an interesting insight into the mind of the writer, and yet I think when I read the book I unwittingly faze these parts out, focusing instead on the two interconnected stories. I think what I’m saying here is that it’s not a perfect book, and perhaps my judgement is clouded by my extreme emotional attachment. Nevertheless, it is beautiful.

Running through both stories is the connection to Paradise Lost, the ‘lost paradise’ of the title, and the stories centre around this idea of being cast out, of making one small mistake – a ‘misunderstanding’ as the real or not real muse in the epilogue suggests – for which the consequence is cruel and extreme and unbalanced when measured against the gravity of the original error. But isn’t that what life is like? And then there are angels hovering in and out of the story, always present if banished from our daily thoughts in this modern age in which religion and its mystical proponents are, in themselves, ‘cast out’, banished from daily life except, perhaps, for the truly dedicated.

The first, and most powerful of the two stories begins in Sao Paolo and ends in the outback of Australia. Alma, the main character, a Brazilian of German descent drives from her home, driven out by a ‘mood’, her ‘shadow’ as her friend Almut refers to it, into the favelas where her car breaks down and she is ‘lost’ in a ‘black cloud’ which descends upon her; an unforgivable cliché that she uses to describe the gang rape she’s subjected to. Her friend Almut, the more pragmatic of the two, suggests they travel to Australia, a place they had been dreaming about since childhood, to the ‘Sickness Dreaming Place’ they read about as children where Alma might recover. So they travel to Australia, a place of dreams, of the ‘Dreamtime’ of aboriginal belief, a place which is not exactly what they were expecting. What they were looking for was a ‘lost paradise’, a place of mystical certainty where people have lived for thousands of years in conditions so unforgiving it is a wonder they can live there at all and yet they have and do. Yet even these people who live so lightly on the land have become ‘cast out’ by the whites who have claimed their lands and the commodities that lie beneath their sacred grounds; they have become ghosts, soulless unrooted people who have lost their past and can’t exist in this present in a way which is in any way meaningful to who they are. Except for a few that do, of course. Alma meets and enters into a short relationship with an Aboriginal man; he becomes, unexpectedly, her ‘sickness dreaming place’, a place in which she can become reconciled to her cast out status, despite saying little and offering her nothing, as she describes so movingly in chapter 7 in a few small pages which never fail to make me catch my breath:

 “I stood out there last night, and there were only two things in the universe – me, and all of those other things, in which case it no longer matters that I will disappear from it one day, because I have seen and understood everything. I have become inaccessible, I feel above it all. If I were an instrument, I would produce the most wonderful music. I know you can’t say any of this to another living soul, but it is true.”

I think this, Alma’s reconciliation with her inevitable end, is what makes this book so moving for me. I think I am drawn to stories of people who emerge from suffering to a new kind of peace and self-certainty (I am yet to watch V for Vendetta and not sob my way through Valerie’s story into Evie’s ‘rebirth’; it gets me every time) and this book has this wrapped in a kind of crystal clarity which makes its power unavoidable.

The second part of the story is briefer and sadder in a way. Erik Zontag, a middle-aged Dutch literary critic (who may or may not be modelled on Nooteboom himself, it’s hard to say) travels to an Austrian spa resort where he suffers, lightly, from exercise and a diet which is designed to cleanse him. Erik is sad, he is a sad and lonely man who doesn’t know who he is or who he wants to be, though he has everything that anyone is supposed to want: success, a young and vibrant girlfriend, a nice apartment, respect, status. Yet he, too, is seeking his lost paradise. A few years earlier, Erik visited a literary festival in Australia. On one of the down days he visited a tour which was taking place in the city, a tour themed around Paradise Lost in which angels had been hidden around the city. During his tour, Erik makes an encounter he did not expect, an encounter which changed him, which cast him out from what he thought was his life into something else. I won’t say what the encounter is, but somehow in this remote spa resort hidden in the hills of Austria something happens which forces Erik to confront it, to admit that he too is searching for a ‘lost paradise’ and like Adam and Eve, his paradise may never be regained.

It’s extremely difficult for me to articulate what it is about Lost Paradise which moves me so deeply. All I know is that it had a profound impact on me the first time I read it and whilst each re-read is different in its own way it is a book which never fails to elicit a strong emotional response. It is invariably the first part which evokes that response, the second part is much more muted and yet it is still necessary to read both parts. I wonder, with my more critical eye, if there’s an imbalance here, but if there is it makes not the slightest bit of difference to me. I am not sure if I can recommend reading Lost Paradise, I think I can because I think it is a good book irrespective of my blind spot, but I cannot say that it will have the impact on anyone else that it has had on me. Books are just made that way; perhaps it was just the right time, perhaps I have just the right kind of shadow in my own history so that Alma’s shadow resonated strongly with me, perhaps it simply coincides with my own way of thinking about eternity. There is something powerful in looking up at the stars and knowing that everything you’re seeing is older than you’ll ever be, and there’s something of an echo of that here which Nooteboom taps capably into. Perhaps we’re all searching for that lost paradise, and for one brief moment, with this lovely book, perhaps I found it.

Posted in re-read, translation, travel | 4 Comments

On re-reading

It’s almost the middle of April and I’ve read something like thirteen or fourteen books this year, a number I would previously have easily read in a couple of months, and of those thirteen or fourteen books about half of them have been books I’ve read before, some of them books I’ve read more than once before. Re-reading has become an attractive proposition, in fact re-reading is almost the only way I can approach fiction at the moment. I’m not sure why this is. Perhaps there is simply more risk in fiction, that fiction has a greater range of getting it right or wrong for this particular reader and too often it falls into wrong. Or perhaps I am just a little wary right now of reading about messy lives, about anger or sadness or cruelty which so much of fiction seems to be about. I have wondered about that, whether I’ve simply become more fragile or vulnerable and my reading choices are as much about protecting myself as they are about the other things I’ve written so much about: connection, meaning, slowing things doing and making them count. I’m not sure. I know last year was hard, it was hard for so many people, and there are storms to come and when you know a storm is coming it is best to hunker down, to rest and restore yourself, to reinforce your walls and retreat to a place of relative safety while you still can, before the storm rips a hole in your shelter.

I have thought this, but I also know it is not quite that straightforward. I am wary, too, of the lure of novelty. In a world which seems to offer us everything, in which we can climb to the top of Everest both in person and via reportage or plumb the bottom of the ocean, there are so many temptations and I have been tempted and tempted and each new temptation seems to lead me away from rather than towards where I want to be. But it is not just a negative reaction, a rejection of the clamour of all those books I’ll never get around to reading. It’s a positive choice too. When I was a young reader, a teenager say, I would often read books over and over; there are stories which stand as a backdrop to certain periods of my life which I will never forget, which have become ingrained within my memory as strongly as any ‘real’ experience ever has. Re-reading adds a dimension to a book. Not all books, though. Books are written in many different ways and with many different purposes in mind. Sometimes I think about books as like a pond which has iced over. Some books are made to be skated over. You skim the surface of them because there’s nothing really underneath but more ice, but it doesn’t matter because the surface is so smooth and slippery that you skate over it without effort and it is incredible fun and nothing about it makes you want to look underneath your feet because it’s exciting and diverting exactly as it is. Some books make you stop and look at the fish frozen beneath the surface, but if you chip away at the ice you find there’s nothing really there and those are, perhaps, the disappointing ones. And then there are books that you skate over and then skate over again, and then you stop and look and you chip into it and find the ice chips away and underneath is this vast, black intriguing body of water full of fascinating things that you have to investigate; and then there are some in which there is a voice that calls to you from the deep, and you chip away the ice until there is a hole that you can plunge yourself into and down you go, the water filling your lungs and you know you never ever want to come up for air. Some books only reveal themselves in this way. Sure perhaps you can see something below the surface even if you read it only once, but taking the plunge is the only way to really let the book do its work on you.

I have thought of re-reading as a risk-free exercise, but it is not without risk. Every time I open a book to re-read it, I wonder if what I remember of it, not just the story but its impact, will remain or whether it or I will have changed and it will become a disappointment. Sometimes you just read a book at the right time. What if I decide that the character that meant so much to me is really wooden, unbelievable or cliched and I simply didn’t spot it last time? I will have taken a fond memory and sullied it by over-examination. Maybe I’ll look back on my earlier self and think I was an imbecile. There are worse things. It is, perhaps, better to be flexible and wrong than to be wedded to a false ideal, though false ideals often prove so very comforting.

Comfort. It comes back around to this. There is comfort in revisiting something that stirred or resonated with an earlier version of yourself. It creates a connection, a thread, a continuous narrative that links the younger me to the me I am now. Sometimes I wonder if the idea of an enduring ‘I’ is something of a fiction in itself, that I only believe I am the same person I was ten years ago when in fact that person is long dead. Re-reading unlocks a redundant memory and reinforces that thread. I’m not sure if it matters whether it’s real or whether it is just a story I tell myself if it helps to get me through the days which might be otherwise so much tedium or stress or mundanity.

Re-reading has been a pleasure, it has been comforting and deep and I no longer feel that I am ‘missing’ something by not having read the books that the other bloggers or readers around me are reading. Instead I feel I have gained something. It is proving hard to articulate what that is, but I begin to wonder if I could pick a core of 50 or so books and only ever read those for the rest of my days. Would I really miss anything? A new experience, perhaps, but that only rings true if I fail to see how re-reading is itself a new experience, a new encounter every time. John Fowles made the point in The Tree that every choice, every progression, is a trade-off of something and we often forget to acknowledge what we’ve traded against the choice we did make. This is true, too, of reading. Every choice is a trade of one book over another, whether that is a book you’ve read before or not. It is the same choice. But when choosing to re-read we choose to repeat, re-enter, reabsorb, re-encounter, to dive deep until the words have seeped into our very being and it’s no longer possible to see where you end and the book begins and that feels, right now, like the most positive choice I can make. It would be hard, I think, to select a mere 50 books and commit to them but suddenly it also seems possible. Have I really changed so much, or am I am merely uncovering a truth I knew as a child which distraction and choice and the lure of ‘free will’ have diverted me from? I have no answers, only more questions. I am sinking into the water and I am wondering if swimming up and thinking I can breathe is really the right thing to do.

Posted in personal reflection, re-read | 4 Comments