A Plea for Eros by Siri Hustvedt

I have always loved libraries – the quiet, the smell, the expectation of imminent discovery. In the next book I will find it – some unspeakable pleasure or startling revelation or extraordinary nuance I had never felt or thought of before.”

I have a great admiration for Siri Hustvedt. A couple of years back I munched my way through as many of her books as I could get my hands on; not all of them, but a big chunk. And it was delicious. Hustvedt is, I think, the embodiment of so many admirable qualities: she is warm, humane, she is fiercely intelligent, thoughtful, inquisitive. She is the writer I wish I could be when I’m not wishing I was Tove Jansson or Helen DeWitt or any of those other writers I so hugely admire in lieu of actually writing myself. I am a fan, in short. A huge one.

Thankfully I haven’t quite burned through all of her books yet, and was pleased to discover I still had this small collection of essays sitting on my shelf. Hustvedt is as good, if not better, an essayist as she is a novelist (better, I think) and it’s always a pleasure to encounter her ruminations on the page. I’ve previously read Living, Thinking, Looking and found it challenging and enlightening in equal measure. I’m pleased to say A Plea for Eros is definitely more on the side of enlightening, and consequently it was a complete pleasure to read. Like a perfect piece of chocolate: it is complex, pleasurable, varied and it lingers on the palate afterwards. A most satisfying treat.

But I’m getting carried away. A Plea for Eros is a short collection of essays loosely centred around the concept of pleasure or passion or, rather, things Hustvedt herself is passionate about. In it she explores her love of reading (I am sure I have not read a description which so perfectly matches my own reading motivations as the one above), her love of Dickens, her love of her husband, her love of love and passion, her love of the mind – in particular the strangeness and complexity of the mind – her love of New York City, her love of her family. Hustvedt is a fascinating feminist, the kind I would like to be, in that she admits both the necessity of female equality, the rights of women to have agency over their own bodies and minds and economic opportunity, but also the real complexities of passion and desire, the muddy waters that sexual interaction, sexual desire and human interaction stumbles within. I find this beautifully put in the following anecdote which prefaces the essay ‘A Plea for Eros’:

Image result for a plea for eros“A few years ago a friend of mine gave a lecture at Berkeley on the femme fatale, a subject he has been thinking about for  years. When I met him, he was a graduate student at Colombia University, but now he is a full-fledged philosopher, and when it is finished, his book will be published by Gallimard in France and Harvard University Press in America. He is Belgian, but lives in Paris, a detail significant to the story, because he comes from another rhetorical tradition – a French one. When he finished speaking, he took questions, including a hostile one from a woman who demanded to know what he thought of the Antioch Ruling – a law enacted at Antioch College, which essentially made every stage of a sexual encounter on campus legal only by verbal consent. My friend paused, smiled, and replied “It’s wonderful. I love it. Just think of the erotic possibilities: ‘May I touch your right breast? May I though your left breast?'” The woman had nothing to say.”

And I think it is this intelligent nuance which spans her whole oeuvre: she does not omit the complexities, the messiness, the strangeness of real life for an idealised version of how things should be. Human beings are messy, foolish, blundering. Of course it goes without saying that imbalances of power, exploited, result in terrible abuses on the less powerful party and such power imbalances should be limited as much as possible so that people can come to each other in partnership and equality, fully consenting and explore their strange complex natures in a way which enables their creative, desiring minds to fully express themselves. However, that might be.

I found Hustvedt’s essays on desire – A Plea for Eros – and the feminine – Eight Days in a Corset – fascinating, challenging and enlightening, but I think it is her essays on fiction – specifically focusing on The Great Gatsby, Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend and Henry James’s The Bostonians – which are the most powerful in the book. I am always blown away by writers who have the ability to see and explore the underlying themes which bubble beneath the surface of a work of fiction. It is more than just an exploration of the book, it is a deep exploration into the matters which occupied the mind of the writer themselves often unbeknownst to them, and how these are revealed through the work. Here Hustvedt has a huge advantage, as her own preoccupations include the life of the mind, neurology and psychotherapy – she is an avid explorer of Freud, of Jung, of the strange space between conscious and unconscious being. Here her own preoccupations really flow through and I wonder, sometimes, if that inability to let go of the idea which niggles at the edges of the mind is what makes a writer, pushes a person to explore, to elucidate, to try to unravel the knot that burns in the mind at night. In short, I wonder if that’s what makes a writer (and perhaps why I am not, to my eternal disappointment). I think Hustvedt wonders that too, and I think she is closer but also still worrying the knot. Answers, I think, are less important to the writer than the knot itself.

I appreciate, here, that I have said barely anything about the collection itself, that I have failed to explore its themes or challenge its concepts. Frankly I don’t care about that. This is a fascinating book, full of messy human life, sharp intellectualism, mistakes, kindness and non-judgement. I feel that Hustvedt could write an essay about the shopping list and make it somehow a microcosm of beautiful human existence. It is a lovely book, much easier going than Living, Thinking, Looking, and I enjoyed it immensely. I’m aware I have not been reasoned nor tempered in my thoughts. You’ll have to forgive me that, just this once.

Posted in essays, Siri Hustvedt | 8 Comments

Book nostalgia

Sigh. I don’t know if it’s the time of year, or my frame of mind, but I’m currently wracked with book nostalgia.

Book nostalgia, in case you’ve never experienced it, is a sentimental longing for books previously read. Those books that speak to the soul, for various reasons. Familiar books. Comforting books. Books about certain themes, or with a certain style or tone to them. My book nostalgia has arrived with the spring and I am deeply in the grip of it.

It began with the beautiful light, which made me think of The Enchanted April. ‘It’s almost April,‘ I thought. ‘I must read it again. I always read it in April.

I do not always read it in April, but it felt true.

And with my mind enraptured with wisteria and castles, the wonder if Italy in the spring, I also found myself urgently desiring to re-read The Enchantment of Lily Dahl, because like castles and wisteria, it’s an enchanting book. Enchanting but strange, like a twisted but compulsive dream.

And then I started thinking of The Body Artist and the compulsive, obsessive, attention to detail. The way the whole book reads like a dance, but a cold dance. A dance of clinical precision.

I think about Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet, with its melancholy, its saudade, its beautiful, soul-ripping beauty. Which is so like mono no aware – the melancholy beauty of things passing – which Cees Nooteboom uses so beautifully in his brief novella Mokusei another book I’ve been thinking about on and off for days.

And I think I am yearning for books which I know are somehow rapturous, transcendent, which will lift me out of the everything else – the mundanity, insanity, of Brexit, of Donald Trump, of ‘Russian interference’, of ‘fake news’ and depressing real news, of tragedy and racism and mass murder, of knife crime, of the missing and the sad and the desperately poor, of our ruined world, choked in plastic.

Nostalgia is a disease because it carries us away from what is real into a world in which everything is comfortable and comforting, even the uncomfortable and the discomforting, because it is familiar.

Then again, the new is not necessarily better and there is much to be said for those books which stir the soul in a way which is sure, which speaks to something of our experience that remains true whilst all else seems to be shifting and unsure.

Maybe it is just the weather. I wonder. Does anyone else suffer from book nostalgia? Which books do you crave?

Posted in personal reflection | 12 Comments

The Ideal Reader book 17: Blindness by Jose Saramago

I suspect it’s a little bit of a cheat to have added a book by Saramago to my Ideal Reader mission; he’s a writer I have read before and loved and I know I enjoy his books which are challenging and often highly thought-provoking. I bought Blindness a long time ago, being aware it is possibly Saramago’s most well-known book (aside, perhaps, from The Gospel According to Jesus Christ) and then shelved it and never bothered reading it. Given I’ve been in a rather cheaty mode anyway (library books…mea culpa) it felt like the right time.

For those not familiar with Saramago’s style, it takes a little bit of getting used to. Long, unbroken sentences, peppered with dialogue which isn’t broken out with speech-marks. Full-stops almost exclusively at the end of chapters. Characters referenced only by limited characteristics: the blind man, the ophthalmologist, the girl with dark glasses, the car-thief, the first blind man’s wife (this, for some reason, kept popping into my head as the first bad man, which is a different story entirely). Change in speaker is not highlighted beyond the capitalisation of a word. Consequently it is a style which runs on, like water bubbling along a fast moving stream, and it can be intense and a little exhausting. It is also strangely riveting, like listening to the burble of words in one’s own head.

Blindness is a strange story, very typical (in my experience) of Saramago’s style. In an unnamed city, whilst waiting at a set of traffic lights a man goes inexplicably blind. There has been nothing wrong with his eyes, he is not and has not been sick. One moment he can see, and the next his sight is replaced with a white-blindness. His sudden blindness causes a traffic jam, in the confusion he encounters a kind stranger who offers to drive him home. This kind stranger turns out to be an opportunistic car thief – after driving the man home and offering to stay with him (an offer the blind man refuses out of a sudden suspicion) when he leaves he leaves with the blind man’s car. However, his opportunism doesn’t last long; shortly after stealing the car he, too, goes blind.

The blind man visits an ophthalmologist who can find nothing wrong with the man’s eyes. When he, too, goes blind he realises that this is something more than just coincidence, that this is a strange epidemic in which blindness has become catching. He alerts the authorities. Whilst initially sceptical, as more people begin to go blind they panic and implement an enforced quarantine, abandoning all blind people, and those who have been in contact with the suddenly blind, to a disused mental hospital, guarded by the military, from which they are unable to leave. With some astonishing foresight, the ophthalmologist’s wife claims also to have gone blind, though in reality she retains her sight. Consequently we are able to ‘view’ the occurrences at the quarantine site through blind and non-blind eyes.

The mental institution is a poor location for the newly blind, and the regime there is difficult. To protect more people from going blind, the internees are left to fend for themselves – to find their own way around, collect their pre-made food when it arrives – allegedly three times a day, but the support system for the recently blind soon falls down and food drops become irregular. The facilities are poor – no washing facilities, dirty, clogged lavatories, no facilities for cooking or entertainment. Each day an announcement reminds them of the rules: no trying to leave (they will be shot), clean up after themselves, burn leftovers, bury their own dead. It is a callous regime, without compassion or decency for the afflicted (sound familiar?). Meanwhile, the ophthalmologist’s wife retains her sight and because of this the small group in the ward she and her husband are in manage to get by reasonably well, albeit not without conflict and tragedy. Her sight, however, in the face of all this blindness, is as much a curse as a benefit, as this passage illustrates:

Image result for blindness jose saramago“How can you of all people expect me to go on looking at these miseries, to have them permanently before my eyes, and not lift a finger to help, You’re already doing more than enough, What use am I, when my main concern is that no one should find out that I can see, Some will hate you for seeing, don’t think that blindness has made us better people, It hasn’t made us any worse, We’re on our way though, just look at what happens when it’s time to share out the food, Precisely, someone who can see could supervise the distribution of food to all those who are here, share it out with impartiality, with common sense, there would be no more complaints, these constant arguments that are driving one mad would cease, you have no idea what it’s like to watch two blind people fighting, Fighting has always been, more or less, a form of blindness, This is different, Do what you think best, but don’t forget what we are here, blind, simply blind, blind people with no fine speeches or commiserations, the charitable, the picturesque world of the little blind orphans is finished, we are now in the harsh, cruel, implacable kingdom of the blind, if only you could see what I am obliged to see, you would want to be blind”

The people in the blind facility soon find their tenuous social cohesion falling apart. The terrified soldiers enforcing the quarantine, desperate not to become blind themselves, commit terrible atrocities to prevent the blind internees from straying. Inside the mental institution, the place soon becomes crowded, filthy and diseased as the blind are unable to maintain their more civilised self-care regimes. Crowding, coupled with irregular and inadequate food drops, result in hunger and conflict. When a swell of new internees arrive, conflict comes with them – the new internees create weapons from the hospital beds, one of them has brought a gun; they claim the food and demand payment from each ward in exchange for limited food supplies. The payments begins with belongings but soon moves onto other things.

All the while the ophthalmologist’s wife can see everything that is happening. When the bullying group demand women in exchange for food, she finds herself in a terrifying position, forced into committing acts she did not think herself capable of. Meanwhile the world outside continues to deteriorate. Internment did not contain the spread of blindness. Eventually the soldiers disappear and the blind internees are able to escape, back out into a world which has changed beyond recognition.

Blindness is a terrifying, disturbing and compulsive read. The descent into complete chaos is swift, the violence brutal and relentless. It could be argued that the ophthalmologist’s wife retaining her sight was somewhat convenient, but as the story develops her ability to see, in contrast to the situation and behaviour of the blind, is a powerful tool which forces the reader to consider whether it is better to be blind or to see clearly (a not very subtle metaphor), and how compassion is linked to our ability to see other people as people and not as things. In the world of the blind there was a mixture of these things. The blind were vulnerable, but also dangerous, suspicious and, in some cases, cruel. Does seeing each other clearly and honestly help us to treat each other with compassion and decency? I don’t know the answer to this, but the book made me think about it quite deeply.

I hesitate to say that this is an enjoyable read, because it is so brutal and disturbing in places. Yet it is not without hope, nor compassion. There are glimmers of something beautiful amongst the detritus, the effluence that flows from a breakdown of society. Saramago blends humour throughout the brutality, and as a result this book feels very human (if not quite always humane), very real and very true. It reminded me why I loved Saramago so much when I first encountered him, and why I will surely read him again.

Posted in fiction, The Ideal Reader | 15 Comments

Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change by Pema Chödrön

“In its simplest terms, then, the path to liberation begins with refraining from hurting ourselves and others. When many people hear ‘”refrain”, they automatically think “repression” and assume that when an urge comes up, they should just push it under. In therapeutic circles, there’s an ongoing debate about which causes more harm: repression or acting out. To me, they’re equally harmful. Once you speak or act, there’s a chain reaction, and other people’s emotions become involved. Every time you speak or act out of aggression or craving or jealousy or envy or pride, it’s like dropping a pebble into a pool of water and watching the ripples fan out; everyone around you is affected. Similarly, if you repress your feelings, everyone is affected by that too, because you’re walking around like a keg of dynamite that’s about to go off.”

Confession: this book was borrowed from the library.

Image result for living beautifully with uncertainty and changeYes, I’ve borrowed a few books from the library recently, breaking my pledge not to borrow or buy books until I’d read all of my own. For the past month or so I have been exploring Buddhist practice in more depth and as I have a very limited supply of books on the subject I have felt the need to dip into the library for a wider supply. I’ve borrowed only 3, which I think is not too bad: a book of poetry by the Zen poet Ryokan, a book by the Dalai Lama and this one. It’s a small deviation and I’m not going to beat myself up about it. Which I think might mean I’ve learned something.

This book came as something of a surprise to me, which is odd because I’m not sure I had any clear expectations. I hadn’t heard of the writer before, though it turns out she is quite a force in Western Buddhism, and I was slightly ambivalent about the title. Yet this book has been one of the clearest, most accessible and gentlest texts I’ve encountered on  Buddhist principles. The book centres around 3 core commitments:

The First Commitment: Committing to not cause harm (the Pratimoksha Vow)

The Second Commitment: Committing to take care of one another (the Bodhisattva Vow)

The Third Commitment: Committing to embrace the world just as it is (the Samaya Vow)

Whilst these commitments may seem relatively simple in principle, practicing them is difficult but Chödrön provides some gentle, clear guidance on how to approach the commitments, what they mean and how to go about incorporating them into your daily life. As she describes approaching the first commitment:

“It’s a tricky business – not rejecting any part of yourself at the same time that you’re becoming acutely aware of how embarrassing or painful some of those parts are. What most of us have been doing is gearing our lives toward avoiding unpleasant feelings whilst clinging to whatever we think will make us feel good and secure. From a conventional point of view, this makes perfect sense. But from the vantage point of remaining with our direct experience, the vantage point of opening to the tentativeness of life, this strategy is self-defeating, the very thing that keeps us stuck.”

By providing examples from her own life, and examples of what the three commitments comprise and, perhaps more importantly, don’t comprise, Chödrön patiently develops the ideas of the three commitments. We start with the first commitment which involves not causing harm or refrain from unwholesome action if I relate it back to my readings of the Shobogenzo. In approaching the first commitment, we seek to refrain from causing harm to both ourselves and to others. This involves not lashing out at others, not speaking in a way which will cause harm or distress to others, and similarly refraining from self-criticism, from causing distress to ourselves. Instead we pause, we do not send the angry e-mail, we do not defend ourselves, we do not complain about the behaviour of others. This is an uncomfortable place, it asks us not to apply judgement and labels but rather to learn to simply experience the emotion. If someone humiliates you, then you don’t label that experience as bad. Instead you try to experience it in its entirety, as explained here:

“As a way of working with our aggressive tendencies, Dzigar Kongtrul teaches the non-violent practice of simmering. He says that rather than “boil in our aggression like a piece of meat cooking in a soup,” we simmer in it. We allow ourselves to wait, to sit patiently with the urge to act or speak in our usual ways and feel the full force of that urge without turning away or giving in. Neither repressing nor rejecting, we stay in the middle between two extremes, in the middle between yes and no, right and wrong, true and false. This is the journey of developing a kindhearted and courageous tolerance for our pain. Simmering is a way of gaining inner strength.”

The Second Commitment asks us to extend that practice to encompass kindness and compassion towards others, all others. It asks to us allow other beings into our lives and to care for them. Whilst this might seem like a soft commitment, in reality it is not. In fact I wonder if this is the most difficult of the three because it incites us to be vulnerable, to be open and vulnerable in a way we generally are not. As Chödrön describes:

“Compassion is threatening to the ego. We might think of it as something warm and soothing, but actually it’s very raw. When we set out to support other beings, when we go so far as to stand in their shoes, when we aspire to never close down to anyone, we quickly find ourselves in the uncomfortable territory of “life not on my terms”.”

This might be described as do wholesome action or perhaps more recognisable as the practice of bodhicitta, the offering of compassion to the world. In approaching the second commitment we offer to breathe in the pain of others and breathe out soothing, calmness and joy. It is hard because it asks us to offer compassion even for those who commit acts of cruelty, not just the victims of cruelty. It asks us to transcend our need to apply judgement.

The final commitment is to accept the world just as it is, full of petty annoyances and discomforts, it’s trials, the loss of all that we know and love. This practice asks us to confront the fact that there is no escape, that we cannot avoid pain or death, that we cannot avoid loss. We can fight, or we can relax and smile. This commitment asks us to relax and smile, to respect the difficulties of life as our beautiful practice ground in which we can learn to transcend our instinct and experience life in all its glorious intensity.

“From the perspective of charnel-ground practice, the chaos in our lives isn’t terrible. It’s simply the material that we work with. Viscerally, however, it feels terrible, and we don’t like it a bit. So it takes courage and gentle, compassionate discipline just to hold our seat. What keeps us moving forward is that the practice puts us in touch with the living energy of our emotions – an energy that has tremendous power, the power to wake us up. Because of its intensity, it can pop us our of our neurosis, pop us out of our fearful cocoon, pop us into sacred world.”  

I found this book an extremely clear-eyed, compassionate and insightful way of approaching the difficulties of life a bit differently. I am, as most people are, prone to trying to control the situations I’m in. Consequently I think I have suffered more because not only have my attempts at control largely failed, but I have suffered the additional disappointment of that failure; as well as the twin, and equally destructive, poles of the hope that things will turn out differently and the certainty that if only I had done something differently, or the world was different, that it would have done. Instead of setting my life on track, I have simply moved onto a path which was more wrong. Stopping and confronting, accepting and offering compassion, however, feels much more right, if less instinctive (and therefore more difficult). I thought this book might offer comfort, and it does but it also offers truth and that is much more powerful. I am not sure I am ready, by any stretch, to embrace the world as it is; but by practicing non-harm, coupled with a more compassionate spirit, I may stop running into walls of my own making. And maybe the rest will come, with time and patience and practice.



Posted in buddhism, meditation, religion | 7 Comments

The Cauliflower by Nicola Barker

“The devotees are mesmerised by the guru. They are in awe. They are transfixed. They are speechless. After a lengthy duration, furtive glances are exchanged, throats are nervously cleared, and then they quietly commence – with hushed and reverential voices – the singing of hymns. It’s as if the Divine Mother herself is now inhabiting the guru. God is here, in this very room. She is he. He is she. They are one.”

I think I should make it clear from the outset that I admire Nicola Barker a very great deal. She is a highly unique novelist. Usually I enjoy books that are thoughtful, spacious, methodical even. Books that are clean and open, sparse writing, ideas driven. Nicola Barker’s novels are definitely thought-provoking, but they are also wild, exuberant, irreverent, playful and, honestly, a bit crackers. Yet this is exactly what I admire about them. They are like a swill of heady champagne, all pop and fizzle, going straight to the very top of your brain and mangling all the connections so you’re left slightly bewildered, a bit tipsy and in possession of a very different view of the world. She’s brilliant.

The Cauliflower tells the story of Sri Ramakrishna a genuine guru who lived in India in the 19th Century. A real man. I didn’t know this until I was about 1/2 way through the book and then I was wracked with curiosity about him (as was Barker, herself). As this is a Nicola Barker book she throws you right in the deep end; the book is written in the first person making it immediate and present; there are segments that unfold as though they are occurring right before your eyes, unfolding like a movie, all of which adds to the sense of theatricality. There are (fictionalised) accounts from the perspective of people who were responsible for the support and spiritual development of Sri Ramakrishna, or encountered him, or heard about him, or spent time with him coupled with shards of poetry, fragments of letters, curious asides. Sri Ramakrishna is surrounded by a large and eclectic cast of characters like Rani Rashmoni who founded the temple to Kali at Dakshinewar where Sri Ramakrishna served; his  nephew Hridayram who serves him with both devotion and  resignation, with one eye ever on his own advancement; Mathur Baba who takes over the temple when Rani Rashmoni died; Narendra who Ramakrishna believes will take forward his movement when he dies (as he does). Overarching these characters is the narrator of The Cauliflower (some kind of documentary, or maybe just the book itself representing its intention) who pops up now and then to add a sense of mischief and theatre to the whole proceedings.

Sri Ramakrishna himself does not speak, except as overheard by others. This distancing reminded me somewhat of Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room in which the main character, Jacob, is represented by others but never represents himself. Yet there are moments where it may be Sri Ramakrishna speaking. Little haikus which appear like the voice of God, little pockets of wisdom or strangeness amongst the chaos. This all creates a sense of roundedness; we see Sri Ramakrishna from many angles, from the angles of believers and disbelievers, and there are contradictory elements to his character.  What comes across is an odd and chaotic figure, deeply spiritual but spiritual in a way which is visceral and experimental. He spends time emulating (perhaps even being) Hanuman who is a God in monkey form; his relationship with Kali is that of child and mother – he wails for her, seeks her relentlessly, crying, screaming, demanding. He goes into deep transcendent periods of spiritual ecstasy, trances, with disturbing regularity. His pathway to God is strangely agnostic: he embraces the Hindu Gods (Kali, Shiva), Christianity, the Muslim faith at different periods in his life. He develops a following, and that following both reveres and is mystified, in some cases repelled, by him. Perhaps this is part of Barker’s point: that an encounter with God would be bewildering, not subject to human rules, something apart and distant from our daily, routine lives.

Image result for the cauliflower nicola barker“On one occasion Sri Ramakrishna comes outside onto his balcony to find the two of them engaged in a bitchy discussion about the credibility of the non-dualist approach. Narendra is pointing to a water pot that sits on the floor between them and is saying, ‘Is that water pot God?! Is this cup, God?! Are you, God?! Am I God?!’

They are laughing together, scornfully, at the very thought.

‘What are you laughing at?’ the childlike guru wonders, sweetly, and as he speaks he taps Narendra lightly on the shoulder, once again turning the teenager’s entire universe on its head.

Narendra immediately becomes conscious of the fact that the whole world is God. The. Whole. World.

He spends the entire day in this bizarre, heightened state. He tells nobody what is happening to him. He just hopes – desperately hopes – that it will wear off. But it doesn’t. He travels home. Everything is God. He sits down to eat. The plate is God. The food is God. His mother who serves him is God. Her words are God.”

The Cauliflower is an odd, chaotic and strangely compelling book. It is in parts frustrating, in parts annoying, chaotically exuberant and a bit exhausting. In other words, a typical Nicola Barker book. It’s also reverential, explorative, innovative and completely mad. It’s a whirling dervish of a book, eclectic and unpredictable. It includes haiku, strange historical facts, extracts from the Song of Solomon and reference to Dickens. You never quite know what’s going to come next. I loved it. It is a book about faith, joy, about the human spirit, the force of belief and a guru who is childlike, without ego (or is he) and desperate to make a real and true connection with God. Sri Ramakrishna is 5 parts man to 5 parts myth and Barker explores all parts equally, madly and with a curious spirit. It’s a fine line, but she treads it neatly with a little skip in her step. It is joyful, and I loved it.

Posted in fiction | 8 Comments

The Ideal Reader Book 14: The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard

The horror of the nineteen days it took us to travel from Cape Evans to Cape Crozier would have to be re-experienced to be appreciated: and any one would be a fool who went again: it is not possible to describe it. The weeks which followed were comparative bliss, not because later our conditions were better – they were far worse – but because we were callous. I for one had come to that point of suffering at which I did not really care if only I could die without much pain. They talk of the heroism of the dying – they little know – it would be easy to die, a dose of morphia, a friendly crevasse, and blissful sleep. The trouble is to go on…”

At the age of 24, Apsley Cherry-Garrard joined Robert Falcon Scott’s Terra Nova expedition, Scott’s infamous last and tragic attempt at reaching the Antarctic pole. The Worst Journey in the World was published 10 years after Scott’s death and recounts Cherry-Garrard’s experiences on the expedition, the three years he spent in the Antarctic, the travails they suffered and the horror of finding the polar team, his friends and colleagues, dead several months after the expedition was known to have failed. It is a bleak, strange and emotionally tumultuous book; as Cherry-Garrard famously said: “Polar exploration is at once the cleanest and most isolated way of having a bad time which has been devised.” and the book lays this out without self-pity or glossing. I find myself at the end of it feeling rather like I need a really good cry.

Image result for the worst journey in the world

The books covers the entire period during which Cherry-Garrard was in the Antarctic, three years in total and longer, perhaps, than any one person can be left in such an unforgiving environment. The worst journey is not, itself, a reference to Scott’s attempt at the pole, rather it refers to an early journey conducted in winter in which Bill Wilson, Cherry-Garrard and Henry “Birdie” Bowers undertook a trip from Cape Evans to Cape Crozier to collect some specimens of Emperor Penguin eggs, the idea being to determine an evolutionary link between reptiles and birds. The party intended to camp for a time at Cape Crozier, the better to obtain the specimens and observe the colony of penguins there, but the weather and conditions conspired against them and in the end they collected only three eggs before having to return. During their 5-6 week stint out on the polar wastes, the three men suffered terribly – experiencing temperatures of -30 Fahrenheit to -60 Fahrenheit during the worst parts of the trip. This alongside a kind of self-experimentation on the relative merits of different types of rations it’s a wonder they came back alive at all, though of course later both Wilson and Bowers were to perish in their attempt at the pole. The bonding the three men did on this terrible trip is not lost, and Cherry-Garrard’s fondness for both is both poignant and self-evident in the way he writes about them.

Of Scott himself there is not a great deal said. It seems that Scott was something of an enigma to his men, distant, perhaps, to all but Wilson of whom he was evidently very fond. Much of the book is turned to the polar attempt, not least because Cherry-Garrard himself accompanied the group at least part of the way and the later loss of the polar party, and Cherry-Garrard’s inadvertent hand in it, had such a terrible effect upon him. Scott’s methods left much to be desired; I don’t know if it was the intent of Cherry-Garrard to expose this (I suspect not, as he speaks with great respect for the man) but the mistakes, the unnecessary dangers to the men, leak through. Of course it is easy to judge in retrospect, and I had to keep reminding myself of the time in which they were making this attempt (1911 – 1913) and the poor technology available to them at the time. People still die in the Antarctic, even with the infinitely better technology available to us now. Yet the whole trip seems something like a massive experiment – Scott trying this, trying that, tinkering about here and fiddling about with that – so that the tragic end seems both surprising and unnecessary. He took ponies (ponies!) and dogs which were untrained on the trip; the men were untrained, each left to do what he chose which, bizarrely, was often too much rather than too little. There was little in the way of routine and discipline, Scott did not lead so much as inspire. Yet they were all grown men, free to live and risk their lives as they chose.

And after the excesses, the boredom and inevitable disappointments of Christmas, it was good to be reminded of this:

“Looking back I realised two things. That sledging, at any rate in summer and autumn, was a much less terrible ordeal than my imagination had painted it, and that those Hut Point days would prove some of the happiest in my life. Just enough to eat and keep warm. no more – no frills nor trimmings: there is many a worse and more elaborate life. The necessities of civilisation were luxuries to us: and as Priestly found under circumstances compared to which our life at Hut Point was a Sunday school treat, the luxuries of civilisation satisfy only those wants which they themselves create.”

Despite the horrors, the endless darkness, the cold, the poor food, the danger, the scurvy and frostbite, this is still a strangely beautiful and inspiring book. I am not about to hark off to the Antarctic, however! In all the chaos and suffering, these men found something extraordinary. Something extraordinary about themselves and about the world. They discovered, and like so many important discoveries it had to be made outside of the day to day ordinary life. But at what terrible cost. As Cherry-Garrard himself reflects:

“Such tragedies inevitably raise the question, ‘Is it worth it?’ What is worth what? Is life worth risking for a feat, or losing for your country? To face a thing because it was a feat, and only a feat, was not very attractive to Scott: it had to contain an additional object – knowledge. A feat had even less attraction for Wilson, and it is a most noteworthy thing in the diaries which are contained in this book, that he made no comment when he found that the Norwegians were first at the Pole: it is as though he felts that it did not really matter, as indeed it probably did not.[…]

[…]And I tell you, if you have the desire for knowledge and the power to give it physical expression, go out and explore. If you are a brave man you will do nothing: if you are fearful you may do much, for none but cowards have need to prove their bravery. Some will tell you that you are mad, and nearly all will say, ‘What is the use?’ For we are a nation of shopkeepers, and no shopkeeper will look at research which does not promise him financial return within a year. And so you will sledge nearly alone, but those with whom you sledge will not be shopkeepers: that is worth a good deal. If you march your Winter Journeys you will have your reward, so long as all you want is a penguin’s egg.”

I think this is just about the most perfect advice anyone can give you about living a life. Your ‘Winter Journey’ might take a different form, it doesn’t have to involve freezing one’s nose off at any pole, but involves, instead, exploring your passion whatever that is, whatever its rewards, however much people might think you’re mad for it.

So I’m off to have my little cry now. Happy 2019. Sledge well, whatever the odds.


Posted in exploration, memoir, science, The Ideal Reader | 7 Comments

The Ideal Reader: a refrain

Several months ago I took the decision to start tackling my book habit by finally reading all those books I bought for idealistic reasons; the books that defined the smart version of me, the well-read one, the one who had diverse and varied interests: in other words the ‘ideal reader‘. In May I made a list of all those books that I could clearly identify fell into that category and resolved not to buy or borrow any books until I’d read them all. There were 104 in total, more if you count the multiple volumes contained in some of those books (We Tell Ourselves Stories In Order To Live & The Story of the Stone comprising 12 volumes between them, but I’ve counted them as 2). For the old me, 104 books would more than 1 year’s reading, less than 2, but now I’ve slowed my reading, and coupled with the rather challenging nature of some of the books, I suspect it will take rather longer than 2 years to complete my mission.

So far I’m up to book 14 from my list. It’s not excellent progress but what I’ve found since I started is that the idea of ‘progress’ has melted away. In addition to the 104 books on the list I also have something like 100-150 other books which I haven’t read and aren’t on the list and I’ve been reading from both sections of my library over the course of the past several months. I have books, I am reading books. There is no pressure except that which I place upon myself.

So far my list of books read is as follows:

  1. The Undiscovered Self by C.G. Jung
  2. The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
  3. The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen
  4. Bushido: the Soul of Japan by Nitobe Inazo
  5. The Three-Cornered World by Natsume Soseki
  6. The Book of Lieh-Tsu
  7. Zen and the Birds of Appetite by Thomas Merton
  8. Wabi Sabi: the Art of Impermanence by Andrew Juniper
  9. The Story of the Stone by Cao Xuequin
  10. Shobogenzo by Dogen (unfinished)
  11. Cartesian Sonata by William H Gass (unfinished)
  12. Germinal by Emile Zola
  13. The Leopard by Lampedusa
  14. The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard (in progress)

I say ‘read’ but as you’ll see not all of the books are finished. The Shobogenzo is a huge volume of buddhist writing, not something to be downed in a single gulp, and I’ve been dipping into and out of it over the past several months, sometimes going back over something which I found particularly meaningful. Cartesian Sonata is a collection of 4 novellas; Gass is an interesting but extremely challenging writer, and I’ve found it difficult to read it continually but after I finish a book if I feel I can handle it I have been going back to it and reading a single novella. I have two left. I’ve just started the Cherry-Garrard; it felt like an appropriate read for the season as we enter these days of darkness.

Neither have I reviewed all of the books I’ve read. My intention when embarking on this challenge was to experience the reading and that’s what I’ve been doing. Some of the books have left me little to say, others too much. I am increasingly coming to recognise that my desire to write about what I’ve read isn’t connected to the pleasure of reading itself, in some ways it detracts from it. Perhaps it is the increasing toxicity of the virtual world having an effect on me, but I’m not sure shouting out into the void is really meaningful…though here I am, still shouting.

I have been slightly disappointed to notice that my list involves books predominantly by white men. I wondered for a while if that reflected a deep held bias that equivocated white men with more challenging reads, but when I looked at the books I had already read I realised it was something else. I had already read most of the books by women and people of colour. Maybe it is still a form of bias, just not the one I’d imagined.

I have also cheated, a little. I’ve borrowed 3 books from the library, all in the past two weeks. And that’s okay. I’ve managed 7 months without borrowing a book and I know, now, that I can manage 7 more and another 7 more without difficulty. One of the books was Cal Newport’s Deep Work, something which has helped me to refocus both in reading and in my life. The other two are books of poetry by Tomas Transtromer.  I recently encountered his work and find it beautiful, and I’m not wholly sure that books of poetry can ever be off my borrowing list. I haven’t bought any books, except for other people. With Christmas approaching I have found my desire to acquire new books resurfacing; it seems to ebb and flow in waves. There have been some fascinating books released this year: Crudo by Olivia Laing, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk, Some Trick by Helen DeWitt, Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss – all these have tempted me, and perhaps it would be okay to buy them, they are only four after all, but I haven’t. I can wait. I am learning to wait.

I’m not sure I’m learning anything except to be satisfied, patient and settled. It is not easy. Sometimes I find it incredibly difficult to select a book to read, though I have literally hundreds to choose from. And I wonder if my book buying desire has simply been converted to something else: I have spent a lot of time making things – chutneys, wines, kombucha, batch cooking. Maybe my restlessness is manifesting differently, but I’m not sure. There’s a settledness in me that I haven’t experienced before. I am beginning to feel I have nothing to prove, that maybe just being is enough.

I am not sure how much I will be blogging into 2019, but I don’t think it matters either. I will write as the spirit takes me. The world will go on. I have books to read.

Happy reading. Love books. Live life. Be kind.





Posted in The Ideal Reader | 13 Comments