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 | 7 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

The Tree by John Fowles

Image result for the tree john fowles“There is something in the nature of nature, in its presentness, its seeming transience, its creative ferment and hidden potential, that corresponds very closely with the wild, or green man, in our psyches; and it is a something that disappears as soon as it is relegated to an automatic pastness, a status of merely classifiable thing, image that then. ‘Thing’ and ‘then’ attract each other. If it is thing, it was then; if it was then, it is a thing. We lack trust in the present, this moment, this actual seeing, because our culture tells us to trust only the reported back, the publicly framed, the edited, the thing set in the clearly artistic or the clearly scientific angle of perspective. One of the deeper lessons we have to learn is that nature, of its nature, resists this. It waits to be seen otherwise, in its individual presentness and from our individual presentness.”

I picked up this slim title by Fowles on a bit of a whim, attracted by the author, who I admire, the subject matter and the slimness of the volume. The Tree is more of an essay than a book, a mere 94 pages long, but despite its brevity it covers a great deal of ground and left this reader with a great deal to think about. The Tree is Fowles’s musings on his relationship with nature, his relationship with his father and the way the two things intertwine into his relationship with literature. The book begins with the story of Fowles’s father, a man renowned for his excellent apple trees and the quality of his fruit, grown in a tiny garden and under strict, confined conditions. The iron control exercised by his father is the antithesis of Fowles’s relationship with nature, with the ‘wildness’ of it. What his father sought to control, Fowles desired to run free. Yet whilst their desires ran contrary to each other, at its root he saw a commonality and the divergence was purely in their means of expression. His father’s domineering control created the conditions into which Fowles’s wild nature could emerge, and emerge specifically in the form of imaginative writing.

Whilst Fowles casts his father as a dominating, controlling influence he is not unsympathetic to him and explores the ways in which his father was himself affected by, and shaped by, his experiences in the Great War. There’s a sense that the relationship was strained and often difficult, and that Fowles, through this writing, was seeking to exorcise some of the psychological damage resulting from that. The area that Fowles most struggled with in his father’s attitude, an attitude which is widely shared, is the need for the natural world to deliver ‘value’. His father was obsessed with the ‘value’ of his crop, though he didn’t sell it, and similarly obsessed with his son’s life and career choices delivering ‘value’. Fowles attributes this attitude in part to the dominance of science over mysticism and art, the concept that everything must be measured and classifiable, weighed and rationalised. Nature, Fowles argues, is beyond rational measurement; it is in its very nature ‘other’, unknowable, unreachable, uncontrollable, alien and wild. It is often frightening and sometimes enervating. And this wildness is reflected in ourselves, we all have a wildness in our nature, our uniqueness, our beliefs and intuitions, which defy moulding. It is the part of ourself which remains apart from ‘society’, that we can neither control nor explain. As he reflects:

“Half by its principles, half by its inventions, science now largely dictates and forms our common, or public, perceptions of and attitudes to external reality. One can say of an attitude that it is generally held by society; but society itself is an abstraction, a Linnaeus-like label we apply to a group of individuals seen in a certain context and for a certain purpose; and before the attitude can be generally held, it must pass through the filter of the individual consciousness, where this irreducible ‘wild’ component lies – the one that may agree with science and society, but can never be wholly plumbed, predicted or commanded by them.”

Fowles doesn’t question the validity of science, of scientific methods, but rather he suggests that instead of focusing on mere value we should also consider cost. Progress can deliver benefit, but it also always comes with cost. Often we look away from the cost. Nowhere is this more apparent in my mind than those most ubiquitous aspects of modern technology: the internet and the ‘smartphone’. That they allow us to be connected, to have access to information at the press of a key, that they allow us to know and experience the world in a way which has never previously been available to us is doubtless the benefit of both of these technologies. But together with value there is cost. It has never been easier to damage another human being. Cruelty and indifference are rife, as is abusive and threatening behaviour. Hysteria, frustration, depression and fear are similarly prevalent. People are addicted and manipulated, and sometimes it is unclear if we’re using the tools or they’re using us. Fowles doesn’t argue against progress, but he argues whether we’re clear about what we’re trading for it. Nature, our essential wild being, our individuality outside the abstraction of ‘society’ is what we risk when everything is forced to be useful and malleable and explainable.

“It, this namelessness, is beyond our science and our arts because its secret is being, not saying. Its greatest value to us is that it cannot be reproduced, that this being can be apprehended only by other present being, only by the living senses and consciousness. All experience of it through surrogate and replica, through selected image, gardened word, through other eyes and minds, betrays or banishes its reality. But this is nature’s consolation, its message, and well beyond the Wistman’s Wood of its own strict world. It can be known and entered only by each, and in its now, not by you through me, by any you through any me; only by you through yourself, or me through myself. We still have this to learn: the inalienable otherness of each, human and non-human, which may seem the prison of each, but is at heart, in the deepest of those countless million metaphorical trees for which we cannot see the wood, both the justification and the redemption.”

For a short essay about trees, Fowles doesn’t talk of trees very much or very often, but rather uses them as a metaphor for his most significant relationships. That one of them was with nature just makes it a natural fit. Something about this work reminded me strongly of Marilynne Robinson’s very difficult but rewarding Absence of Mind, which similarly counselled a greater convergence between our scientific and rational attitudes with the ‘wild’ and unnameable nature of our humanity, the unexplainable thing inside us which is expressed (or often dismissed) as spirituality, mysticism, soulfulness. Fowles doesn’t demand a withdrawal from progress, he’s too canny for that, but he sees the withdrawal, the rejection, of anything which cannot be named as essentially foolish and flawed. We are wild creatures, surrounded by wild things that cannot be controlled. So don’t try to control them, embrace them and accept them for what they are. For when we accept the otherness of nature, we can accept the otherness in ourselves and, perhaps, then we can be both free and social, less conflicted and, perhaps, more fulfilled.

Posted in memoir, nature, philosophy, science | 13 Comments

The Body Artist by Don DeLillo

Stashed inside my copy of The Body Artist is a postcard, a faded yellow card with a simple line drawing in turquoise ink of an outdoor scene and some kind of creature on it, a muskrat perhaps, cheerfully stepping over the roots of a tree, and written on the card is a message which reads “I do hope that you feel much better soon and that you will fully recover very soon. I am sure that the babies to come will help. All my love.” and it is signed, I think, Annette or a name that looks a lot like Annette but could be something else. In a different pen, in the top right corner, is a note “Repl 11/2/91” which dates the postcard, though it could have been a year before whoever the recipient was replied, there is no way to know. The postcard came with the book, which I bought secondhand from somewhere on the internet so whoever it was must have decided to give this book away, postcard-and-all which is how I come to be in possession of it. I wonder about this postcard; I keep it, always, stashed in the book. I wonder about the person who received it, whether they miscarried or suffered some other terrible loss that babies to come alone would serve to expunge. It is a little slice of time caught between the pages, appropriate for this slim book in which time, language, cause and effect and the bounds of plausibility are stretched to breaking.

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The Body Artist was the first book I read by DeLillo. I read it a long time ago and hated it and gave my copy away, only to seek out another one when I realised my mistake, when I’d discovered I loved DeLillo and wanted to test my prior judgement which, it turned out, was quite wrong or a casualty, perhaps, of mistiming. It is a slight yet complex book full of unspokenness and incoherent time, where events occur before they happen and memory seeps into reality, blurring the boundaries of both. It begins with a couple at breakfast: Lauren Hartke – the ‘body artist’ of the title – and her husband Rey Robles an ageing movie director. The book is worth reading for this opening scene alone, it is, perhaps, the most perfect rendering of a couple having breakfast together, their comings and goings, mis-hearings, the intimacies and the silences and the monologue running in the mind which overrides everything which is happening outside of it. It is, though Lauren doesn’t know it, their last breakfast. Robles drives from their home, a rented place in the woods by the sea, to the apartment of his first wife where he kills himself. The rest of the book follows the time after Robles’s death, when Lauren returns to their home and begins to reconstruct her life.

“If there is no sequential order except for what we engender to make us safe in the world, then maybe it is possible, what, to cross from one nameless state to another, except that it clearly isn’t.”

Here Lauren encounters Mr. Tuttle. That is not his name but a name she gives him. She never knows his name, nor if he is real or even if he is real who or what he is. Mr Tuttle is the noise in the house both she and Rey heard before his death. A ghost perhaps. He is a man, young perhaps or perhaps not, who appears one day sitting on a bed in one of the rooms wearing just his underwear. Mr Tuttle does not express himself as those adept with language express themselves. He appears to have no concept of the past, present or the future. All states intermingle in his speech. DeLillo uses the spectre of Mr Tuttle to challenge our concepts of language, to break it apart, to test how it works and what happens when it doesn’t. Underlying all language is something mysterious, it is something which I have often thought about; the way that language bridges an unbridgeable gap, how I expect – no, demand –  that when I say ‘blue’ the receiver, the other person, both knows what I mean by ‘blue’ and, the greater leap, experiences it in the same way. Yet this is a flawed sense, which DeLillo cracks open both through Hartke and Mr Tuttle, their strange interactions.

“There’s a code in the simplest conversation that tells the speakers what’s going on outside the bare acoustics. This was missing when they talked. There was a missing beat. It was hard for her to find the tempo. All they had were unadjusted words. She lost touch with him, lost interest sometimes, couldn’t locate rhythmic intervals or time cues or even the mutters and hums, the audible pauses that pace a remark. He didn’t register facial responses to things she said and this threw her off. There were no grades of emphasis here and flatness there. She began to understand that their talk had no time sense and that all the references at the unspoken level, the things a man speaking Dutch might share with a man speaking Chinese – all this was missing here.”

Mr Tuttle breaks Lauren’s sense of language, space and time. Only in her body is she secured and centred. Her body is a landscape over which she has unique and supreme control. Offset against the esoteric musings on linguistics, the strangeness of Mr Tuttle’s appearance and Hartke’s behaviour towards him is the concrete and visceral reality of her body and the way she uses it. In the body work Lauren transcends the need for language, to express and explain what has happened to her, to understand Robles’s death and her life and how it moves forward.

“Her bodywork made everything transparent. She saw and thought clearly, which might only mean that there was little that needed seeing and not a lot to think about. But maybe it went deeper, the poses she assumed and held for long periods, the gyrate exaggerations, the snake shapes and flower bends, the prayerful spans of systematic breathing, life lived irreducibly as sheer respiration. First breathe, then pant, then gasp. It made her go taut and saucer-eyed, arteries flaring in her neck, those hours of breathing so urgent and absurd that she came out the other end in a kind of pristine light, feeling what it meant to be alive.”

I recently watched the movie Arrival, a movie which is both beautiful and thought-provoking, which addresses language and how it shapes experience and it feels like this is something DeLillo is doing here, though even less directly. There is a sense of serendipity in having just seen the movie and then read this book. There’s a theory that language shapes experience, that it moulds how we think and how we interact with and respond to the world. It’s never clear if Mr Tuttle is real, what his presence means or how his interaction matters beyond his effect on Lauren. Mr Tuttle is a mirror reflecting the life and experiences of both Lauren and Rey, he speaks in their voices and with their tones as Lauren will speak in his voice and tone, emulate his movements, in a performance piece she delivers towards the end of the book. Is he less real than she, or more so? There are no answers here, DeLillo is not a writer who delivers either answers or, necessarily, a traditional story, but there are so many questions, so many beautiful thoughts, that it doesn’t matter in the end, if there is such a thing as the end or just a series of beginnings or moments we string together with words and call a life.

As usual, it is DeLillo’s use of language which draws the whole thing together, which elevates this beyond just a strange, unsettling story to something more extraordinary. After struggling my way through Walden, just the opening paragraph lifted me back into a different mental space, it pricked tears into my eyes because I knew what was coming. Nothing coherent or necessarily understandable but a meditative form of writing which soothes whilst obfuscating the concrete reality of everything I daily take for granted. The power of words, the experience which underlies the expression and the feeble, insignificant ways in which we bridge that divide between one isolated soul and another. Our perception of time passing. The certainty of death which all DeLillo’s work addresses, death and our relationship to it. It is a strange, unsettling and difficult to place book but that, too, is its power. A book to return to in the future, if a future exists at all.

Posted in fiction, outwith, philosophy, re-read | 2 Comments


Deciding to read more slowly has begun an unexpected process. I am beginning to unpick my habits. Perhaps reading has formed such a central part of my identity, my experience, that taking a different approach with that has caused me to step back and ask myself about everything else. I am questioning everything. Nothing is off-limits.

I have begun keeping a journal, nothing serious but a daily process of writing down my thoughts, my feelings, my observations, the little events of the day. I find that writing in my journal helps me create space for my thoughts, a little oasis of reflection which serves as a buffer to all the things which demand my attention. I have encouraged silence into my life. It is tenuous, weak and not always present but I have ways of creating silent spaces, places I can go, and when I need them I can go there. I am trying to meditate at least every other day; I’m not always successful but I’m trying.

It is becoming easier to let go, to stop doing things I used to do because I realised I had no good reason for doing them. I deactivated my Twitter account and whilst I miss some of the interaction, there are some lovely people who use Twitter, I don’t miss the endless pull of hysteria, outrage, the overwhelming flood of things to be worried and disgusted about. Things I can do nothing about. I have been calmer since I stopped using it, and it’s also limited the reach of my desire. It is nice to learn about new books and new writers, but until I can commit to the ones I already have I don’t need to know about any more.

My life has become a daily experiment in habit breaking. At the beginning of this month I started ‘no internet Tuesdays’, one day a week when I don’t surf the web. It’s not entirely no internet. I allow myself to check my e-mail once in the morning and once in the evening. When I travel to London, I can chat to my husband on skype on the way home. If I need to use the internet for work, for research, then I can do so. The mail is not a necessity, rather a matter of housekeeping and I may quit that at some point, but the chat with my husband is important and I don’t want to be so rigid that I alienate those connections which are so critical to me. What I don’t do is look up inconsequential things, read news articles that neither enlighten nor challenge me and which I would have had no interest in except that they are there. Tuesdays have become the longest day of the week, an oasis of expanded time in which I can think, connect, get bored if I want to. I can sit by the window and listen to the birds and not feel I am ‘wasting’ my time. I am wallowing in it, letting it flood me. At some point I might try a ‘no internet’ Saturday or Sunday. I’m not brave enough yet, but I’m getting there.

I have cut my caffeine consumption. I have a cup of coffee in the morning, and a cup of green tea in the evening and, perhaps, one around midday if I feel it is absolutely necessary. The rest of the time I drink water or herbal tea, milk or juice. Wine, on occasion. I no longer want to anaesthetise or drug myself. I want to experience the world through unflitered emotions.

Wine. I have turned my hand to winemaking. Part of being more connected to the things I consume.

Thoreau said he wanted to live more deliberately and I am beginning to do the same. I am more than just a collection of habits. These experiments are only so much tinkering, a way of figuring out what is really important to me, what I need and what is periphery. Breaking habits is remarkably easy. You only have to start with one, and others follow.

Making new habits is proving much harder. I have a rough idea of where I want to be. My desires fall into three distinct categories. I want to be physically strong, mentally strong and more connected. These are simple aims, but complex in delivery. Mental strength is my strongest asset, though I need to do more to assure it. I would like to meditate daily, I have derided my inability to find a mere 10 minutes a day to spare in this valuable activity. Reading for learning, for self-expansion rather than simple entertainment has become much more important. I am finding reading fiction a struggle, unless it is something with great depth or complexity. I want to read to learn, to empathise, to challenge my thinking, to become a better version of myself. Fiction can do this, but non-fiction may retain the significant place in my reading time.

My physical strength needs work. I do not do enough exercise. I like to walk; I have tried my hand (or feet) at running but sickness put a stop to it. Whether I start running again or not, I need to move more. Luckily being outside, out in the marvellous variety that our world in all its diversity offers, is another of my goals. I also need to address my physical flexibility, I used to do gymnastics when I was younger and I know too well how much more rigid I’ve become since then, my body perfectly moulded by years of a sit down job. I have the classic physique of the regular attender of business meetings. I need to eat less and better. There’s a lot to do.

Connectedness is important too. I want to see and experience more of my daily life, not just get through it. Dillard has inspired me to stop and look at what’s in my garden, to lie in the grass and see what happens. I want to look into my husband’s eyes and remember all the wonderful things that drew me to him, that continue to hold me to him even now. I want to appreciate the miraculousness of my children. It is easy to forget, through the daily annoyances, the pressures and the griefs, that my children are unique and extraordinary people. I don’t want to thoughtlessly consume anymore. But I’ve talked enough about that before, it’s nothing new.

Making a small change has created massive ripples, but all these ripples are good. I feel like I am back in the process of becoming, I am not a fixed and rigid article, stuck in my ways. I am a long way from perfect, I am not very nice and not overly kind and I am still stinting of my time and not a brilliant friend. But neither am I dosing myself awake and asleep, ‘getting through’ days and ‘enduring’, ‘distracting’ myself with mindless entertainment, not that such a thing is really terrible. It’s just that I’m trying to make as many experiences as I have valuable to me. I know I can’t make them all, but more is still an achievement.

Posted in personal reflection | 5 Comments