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.

Image result for the body artist don delillo

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

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard

There are moments in reading that catch you just so, that transform a book into an experience. Perhaps it is just a matter of timing, that you’ve achieved just the right blend of vulnerability, receptiveness and desire and the writer has put together the words in just the right order, with the right emphasis and tone that it simply resonates and you have to break for a moment to recover from the wonderful shock then read it again, tentatively in case it doesn’t work on second reading, or in case it does. And if it does you know you’re onto something, though you might not know what, and you read it again and go back and feel that delicious stirring thrill each time and you know that book will live with you for forever. Perhaps my still slightly sickly state has been an influence, but I had that experience on reading a passage in Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and I make no apology for quoting it in full now:

“I am absolutely alone. There are no other customers. The road is vacant, the interstate is out of sight and out of earshot. I have hazarded into a new corner of the world, an unknown spot, a Brigadoon. Before me extends a low hill trembling in yellow brome, and behind the hill, filling the sky, rises an enormous mountain ridge, forested, alive and awesome with brilliant blown lights. I have never seen anything so tremulous and live. Overhead, great strips and chunks of cloud dash to the northwest in a gold rush. At my back the sun is setting – how can I not have noticed before that the sun is setting? My mind has been a blank slab of black asphalt for hours, but that doesn’t stop the sun’s wild wheel. I set my coffee beside me on the curb; I smell loam on the wind; I pat the puppy; I watch the mountain.

My hand works automatically over the puppy’s fur, following the line of hair under his ears, down his neck, inside his forelegs, along his hot-skinned belly.

Shadows lope along the mountain’s rumpled flanks; they elongate like root tips, like lobes of spilling water, faster and faster. A warm purple pigment pools in each ruck and tuck of the rock; it deepens and spreads, boring crevasses, canyons. As the purple vaults and slides, it tricks out the unleaded forest and rumpled rick in gilt, in shape-shifting patches of glow. These gold lights veer and retract, shatter and glide in a series of dazzling splashes, shrinking, leaking, exploding. The ridge’s bosses and hummocks sprout bulging from its side; the whole mountain looms miles closer; the light warms and reddens; the bare forest folds and pleats itself like living protoplasm before my eyes, like a running chart, a wildly scrawling oscillograph on the present moment. The air cools; the puppy’s skin is hot. I am more alive than all the world.

This is it, I think, this is it, right now, the present, this empty gas station, here, this western wind, this tang of coffee on the tongue, and I am patting the puppy, I am watching the mountain. And the second I verbalise this awareness in my brain, I cease to see the mountain or feel the puppy. I am opaque, so much black asphalt.  But at the same second, the second I know I’ve lost it, I also realize the puppy is still squirming on his back under my hand. Nothing has changed for him. He draws his legs down to stretch the skin taut so he feels very fingertip’s stroke along his furred and arched side, his flank, his flung-back throat.

I sip my coffee. I look at the mountain, which is still doing its tricks, as you look at a still-beautiful face belonging to a person who was once your love in another country years ago: with fond nostalgia, and recognition, but no real feelings save a secret astonishment that you are now strangers. Thanks. For the memories. It is ironic that the one thing that all religions recognise as separating us from our creator – our very self-consciousness – is also the one thing that divides us from evolution, cutting us off at both ends. I get in the car and drive home.

Catch it if you can. The present is an invisible electron; its lightning path traced faintly on a blackened screen is fleet, and fleeing, and gone.”

I’ve tried to read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek before. I’ve read that passage before, it must have stirred me last time because the page was already marked. Last time I gave up before the end. It is a dense book: intricate, wild, vivid. It is intense, not something which is an easy read. Last time it was too much. It is a book which demands slow reading. I found it was best to only read one chapter in a sitting.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is Dillard’s response to her time spent living next to Tinker Creek. It is, perhaps, an alternative, a modernised, Walden (though I have not yet read Walden, so I can’t say for sure). But it is so much more than that. It is Dillard’s forensic curiosity let wild.  During her time at the creek, Dillard aims to see to see and think and learn about the world. Her attention is both broad and singular; she stalks muskrats and bluegills, inspects creek water under the microscope, collects the eggs of the praying mantis, observes the stars and looks for the ‘lights in the tree’ that reveal to her the presence of God in the world. She is both a naturalist and a spiritualist. She is open to all-comers. Her time at the creek is one of connection, of intersection, of openness and investigation. She seeks to set aside her desires, the quibbling voices in her mind, and really see. As she describes here:

“All I can aim foImage result for pilgrim at tinker creekr is try to gag the commentator, to hush the noise of useless interior babble that keeps me from seeing just as surely as a newspaper dangled before my eyes. The effort is really a discipline requiring a lifetime of dedicated struggle, it marks the literature of saints and monks of every order East and West under every rule and no rule, discalced and shod. The world’s spiritual geniuses seem to discover universally that the mind’s muddy river, this ceaseless flow of trivia and trash, cannot be dammed, and that trying to dam it is a waste of effort that might lead to madness. Instead you must allow the muddy river to flow unheeded in the dim channels of consciousness; you raise your sights; you look along it, mildly, acknowledging its presence without interest and gazing beyond it into the realm of the real where subjects and objects act and rest purely without utterance. ‘Launch into the deep,’ says Jacques Ellul, ‘and you shall see.’”

The book is split into chapters, each focused on a particular subject. Things like: Seeing, Fecundity, Spring and Flood. But whilst the book is segmented in this way, there is a thread which runs through it connected by Dillard’s interest in everything around her, her response to it, the marvellous complexity and detail and a singular search for some kind of truth or meaning. She examines and questions, she observes but she does not conclude. It is a book which is searching and seeing and extremely beautiful. I found in it an affirmation, a resonance, a connection. What Dillard seeks, I seek and somehow both our seekings, in our own way, are connected to, or inspired by, the idea of North. As usual, Dillard says it best:

“A kind of northing is what I wish to accomplish, a single-minded trek towards that place where any shutter left open to the zenith at night will record the wheeling of all the sky’s stars as a pattern pf perfect concentric circles. I seek a reduction, a shedding, a sloughing off.

At the seashore you often see a shell, or a fragment of a shell, that sharp sands and surf have thinned to a wisp. There is no way you can tell what kind of shell it had been, what creature it had housed; it could have been a whelk or a scallop, a cowrie, limpet or conch. The animal is long since dissolved and its blood spread and thinned in the general sea. All you hold in your hand is a cool shred of shell, an inch long, pared so thin it passes a faint pink light and almost as flexible as a straight razor. It is an essence, a smooth condensation of the air, a curve. I long for the North where unimpeded winds would hone me to such a pure slip of bone.”

I finished reading Tinker Creek yesterday and for a while afterwards I lay in stunned silence, not speaking, not thinking, just lying and being in the world. I could not do anything ordinary, tasks like arranging the car insurance felt like an alien concept. Just being was enough, it was huge and all encompassing. What Dillard reminded me of was a childhood spent investigating creeks of my own, lying amongst sheep-poo strewn heather on a hillside watching the clouds make shadows on the purple hills opposite and listening to the wind ruffle the harsh grass. I was jealous of Dillard’s time at the creek, but also grateful. Jealous that I have no longer the time to live in such a simple way, though much of my current thinking is edging me in that direction. I guess I will find a way. Grateful because her time there led to this wonder-filled book, full of grubs and egg casings, muskrats and snakes and mosquitos and all the inconceivable forms of life that surround us daily, which we don’t see because our minds are focused on the newspaper. Dillard reminds us to see, and not only to see but to question and she does this without force or didactics but rather with an infectious and irrepressible curiosity that opens the world like a book, points at a page and says ‘see, see, look how extraordinary it is.

Posted in Classics, nature, non-fiction, outwith | 7 Comments

The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt

I recently spent a week working very intensely away from home, 8am to 7pm working days, with a half-hour break for lunch and all that time spend holed up in a room reading boring files. Reading anything else, not surprisingly, was almost impossible and I found myself reading something which became just words on a page to me, nothing going in, no attachment, no interest, like reading the dictionary but less interesting than that. I was already thinking about setting it aside when one morning I woke with a head fogged with fever and the words “Schwan Stabilo” circling in a technicolour loop in my mind. It is perhaps not the best idea to pay such close attention to aural hallucinations at the onset of what would be yet another bad cold, but their repetitive and insistent nature had me in their grip and it’s fair to say I wasn’t in the best condition for making rational, well-reasoned choices and this, in brief, is the story of how I ended up discarding my existing book and reading The Last Samurai again. Well, it was about time for a re-read anyway.

Given that I’ve read The Last Samurai an actual gazillion times before, it’s perhaps not too surprising that I’ve both reviewed it and written about it before and I’d like to say there’s not a great deal more for me to say about it, but that wouldn’t be true. It’s a complex book, a clever book and a very entertaining book and in any one review it has been possible to touch on only a part of it so I could quite easily reintroduce you to the story…

Which is about a woman, Sybilla, and her son, Ludo or David or Stephen, and the realisation that in the absence of a male role model in his young life he could easily turn into one of those Argentinian soldiers with sufficient lack of empathy that, if ordered, would happily throw a dissident from a moving aeroplane, a concern which troubles Sybilla so greatly that she sets out to give him not one but eight male role models, an approach Ludo or David or Stephen follows in the search of his own father….

Or it’s themes…

Which are many and complex and include language, art, language, genius, music, following your dream or not, young people trapped in economic subjugation to the persons into whose keeping they just happen to have fallen, adventure, exploration, the magic of words (in case saying language twice wasn’t sufficient), miracles of obstinacy, letting blue = blue, the merits of the Circle Line, aerodynamics, Liberace (no, not the), parenthood, suicide and that masterpiece of modern cinema Kurosawa Akira’s Seven Samurai….

Or the marvellous way in which it is written….

Being both funny, droll, extraordinarily intelligent (which, by the reading, confers intelligence upon the reader), at times weird and frustrating and often very disjointed but bear with it, it has an interesting thread which flows through it and it is all worth it in the end

Or the things you will learn by reading it…

Such as the plethora of names for multi-syllabaric words, the mathematics of Gauss, the atom, how to write Odysseus in Greek, Mr. Ma’s system of learning, the hiragana, the plot of Seven Samurai, how to give the other side a fair chance, the Kutta-Joukowski principle of aerodynamics, algebra, why never to read Roemer’s Aristarchs Athetesen in der Homerkritik, that there are people who believe death a fate worse than boredom, lots of classical music that is beautiful and well worth listening to, the brilliance of Carling Black Label Adverts and the absolute necessity of Idaho Fried Chicken

Or I could tell you…

That it is quite possibly my most favourite book ever, which is quite a recommendation because I do not have favourites nor believe in having favourites in anything

That it is never dull, that it never grows old, and every reading, even if you finish and go straight around again, is as fresh as the last

That it is a masterpiece of modern literature

Or I could just let you read it for yourself. Oh go on.

Posted in comfort books, personal reflection, re-read | 4 Comments

Essays in Idleness and Hōjōki by Kenkō and Chōmei (translated by Meredith McKinney)

“Where can one be, what can one do, to find a little safe shelter in this world, and a little peace of mind?”

February has been a patchy reading month, it has been interesting and a bit wild, and I’ve read less than ever but as I approached the end of the month I realised that there hadn’t been anything which had really punched me in the gut, and after the soulfulness of January it felt a bit lacking. One of the last books I bought before I stopped routinely buying books was this collection of ancient Japanese texts Essays in Idleness by Kenkō  and Hōjōki  by Chōmei. Both writers were reclusive figures living in thirteenth century Japan, and both writers are key figures in the Japanese philosophy of impermanence – the idea that life is mere illusion, that it is temporary however much we try to fool ourselves that it is otherwise. It is both a philosophical and aesthetic concept, finding beauty in imperfection and spiritual happiness in the pursuit of truth, humility and the Buddhist faith.

The book opens with the Hōjōki, which is a mere eighteen pages long and reflects the life and thinkings of Chōmei who has retreated from the world to live in a small hut away from society. Despite its brevity, the text is quietly powerful reflecting on the transience of existence, of cities, of the benevolence (or otherwise) of leaders, and the events which led him to retreat to his small hut away from the trappings of society. Chōmei reflects upon the simplicity that arises from his unencumbered life, the focus on daily necessities without the need to adjust behaviour for social graces. Yet even this simplicity Chōmei questions, his attachment to his little hut and simple life he sees as another way in which he has failed to let go of his attachments to the world.

Essays in Idleness is a longer, more detailed work which has greater scope and depth. Comprising 243 short pieces, the subjects range from the Buddhist ideals, to the moral codes and conventions of life, life’s brevity and distractions, social refinements, matters of love and grief and beauty. It is a strange blend. At times it is reminiscent of The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon, in fact Kenkō makes reference to The Pillow Book in a number of places, but it doesn’t hang together quite as well as that text lacking a unifying theme or tone. Extracts such as this passage are strongly redolent of The Pillow Book:

“Rather than gazing on a clear full moon that shines over a thousand leagues, it is infinitely more moving to see the moon near dawn and after long anticipation, tinged with the most beautiful palest blue, a moon glimpsed among cedar branches deep in the mountains, its light now hidden again by the gathering clouds of an autumn shower. The moist glint of moonlight on the glossy leaves of the forest shii oak or the white oak pierces the heart, and makes you yearn for the distant capital and a friend of true sensibility to share the moment with you.”

In other respects it reminded me of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, particularly in the short observations and focus on a moral and philosophically stoical approach to life, like here when Kenkō reminds us of the basic necessities of human existence beyond which all is effectively luxury;

“Anyone who wastes time in worthless pursuits must be called a fool or a villain. Obligation compels us to do many things for the sake of lord and nation, and we have little enough time for ourselves. Think of it like this: we have an inescapable need, first, to acquire food, second, clothes, and third, a place to live. These and these alone are the three great necessities of human life. To live without hunger or cold, sheltered from the elements and at peace – this is happiness.”

It is a passage which could easily have been lifted from the Meditations, or any one of the stoic school of Western philosophy. I find it interesting that two thinkers, centuries and half a world apart, land on the same kind of wisdom, and it’s reassuring in a way that there are universals which transcend individual experience. And perhaps it is good to remember that often the things we think we need are nothing more than desires, motivated by social expectation, one-upmanship, or greed.

For me, Essays in Idleness was a timely read. As I mentioned in my jumble of thoughts over the weekend, I have found February a strange challenge because I had lost focus on what it was I wanted to achieve, the reason why I started this journey in the first place. I was slipping back into my old, bad habits: thinking about buying this, that or the other; researching holiday destinations; wasting my time aimlessly surfing the internet, unfocused and directionless, burning hours on nothing. I had forgotten than what I wanted was focus, deliberateness, that I wanted to dive deeply into things instead of skimming the surface. I hadn’t achieved that at all in February, I am finding that deep engagement is much more difficult to attain than I had anticipated, though perhaps I should have been expecting it and my failure to do so was nothing more than arrogance or complacency. Essays in Idleness, particularly, helped me to refocus my thoughts and energy in the direction I intended. As Kenkō writes:

Thus, you should carefully consider which among the main things you want in life is the most important, and renounce all the others to dedicate yourself to that thing alone. Among the many matters that press in on us on any day, at any given moment, we must give ourselves to the most productive, by no matter how little – ignore the rest, and devote yourself entirely to the most important thing. If you find yourself reluctant to abandon the others, you will never achieve your primary aim.”

This struck me as sound advice, though I still feel as though I am at the start just figuring out what are the main things I want in life independently of the things I have been conditioned, allowed myself to be conditioned, into believing I want. Strange to think I have reached the grand old age of 42 without having really ever understood what this is. Or perhaps I did, once, but life has caused me to let go of those aims which were silly or unrealistic, those things which didn’t really matter at all, and only now am I beginning to understand how much time, energy and money I have squandered. But perhaps that, too, is simply what I needed to do to get here, and instead of lingering on the past all I can do is find a good way to move forward. As Kenkō points out:

“While we are young, we have all manner of ambitious plans for the future – to make a success of ourselves in life, achieve grand things, learn skills, study. But there seems plenty of time to fulfil our wishes, and we dawdle on the way, letting ourselves be distracted by the passing concerns of everyday life, so that we grow old having in fact done nothing much. Regret them as we might, there is no regaining our lost years, and, like a wheel running ever faster downhill, debility overtakes us, while we have succeeded in learning no skill and never achieving the success we dreamed of in life.

Well I have learned some skills, for what it’s worth, and I am not so concerned about success, or rather I have a different view of success than my younger self did. My ambition has changed, but in a way which I think gives me a more positive road map for the future, one which engenders connection and respect and decency, which grounds me in my environment and fulfils me in a way no amount of book buying ever could. The writings of Kenkō and, to a lesser extent, Chōmei have inspired me to maintain my focus, to not give up or slip back, because time is short and this, impermanent and distracting world, can be over in a missed heart-beat. There’s no time to waste, all other thinking is mere illusion. This beautiful, profound and affecting work is one I think I will easily dip into and out of in the future, whenever I lose my way or wish to be reminded of the simple wonder of the autumn moon at dawn.

Posted in Classics, Japanese, outwith, philosophy | 6 Comments