Tag Archives: autobiography

In the Wonderland of Mind

You cannot touch the clouds, you know; but you feel the rain and know how glad the flowers and the thirsty earth are to have it after a hot day. You cannot touch love either; but you feel the sweetness that it pours into everything. 
Annie Sullivan quoted in Helen Keller’s The Story of My Life (16)

IMG_1381Two unrelated things occurred this week that led me to read Helen Keller’s early autobiography. The first was that I happened to come across the book on my children’s book shelf as I was enlisted to find something for my eleven year old to read (he chose Robinson Crusoe). The second is that I attended a lecture in which the topic of Wittgenstein’s private language argument was discussed.

To know the thoughts and deeds that have marked man’s progress is to feel the great heart-throbs of humanity through the centuries; and if one does not feel in these pulsations a heavenward striving, one must indeed be deaf to the harmonies of life (55)

The question asked in the lecture was: is language essentially social? As language is an agreed upon  set of sounds and symbols, what is its function when agreement (with another) is taken out by virtue of isolation? Can we really imagine it? I wondered if Miss Keller might have some insight into the question.

Each individual has a subconscious memory of the green earth and murmuring waters, and blindness and deafness cannot rob him of this sixth sense – a soul sense which sees, hears, feels, all in one (65).

In the case of Keller, she, in fact, did have sight and sound, as well as some language acquisition for the first 19 months of her life, so she is more of a, (as the lecturer coincidently stated)  “Robinson Crusoe type” whose isolation comes only after language has (more or less) made inroads into the mind.

Many scholars forget, it seems to me, that our enjoyment of the great works of literature depends more upon the depth of our sympathy than our understanding. The trouble is that very few of their laborious explanations stick in the memory. The mind drops them as a branch drops its overripe fruit (53).

Keller describes stirringly and with aching beauty the effect her reacquaintance with language, bursting with shared meaning and human contact, had upon her. Her thoughts regarding literature, learning, and life are lovely and true. This early autobiography is wonderful to read, not least of all for the  glimpse into Keller’s towering intellectual mind at its inception.

We should take our education as we would take a walk in the country, leisurely, our minds hospitably open to impressions of every sort (55).

As I wrote in a response to the lecture, according to David Crystal’s book How Language Works, it is the “duality of structure” (Crystal 11) that differentiates language from communication. He describes the two different levels of language: the first: sounds and symbols which are the structural architecture and have no intrinsic meaning, (one doesn’t ask what “s” means, after all) and the second: combining, recombining and inventing ever new ways to use these sounds and symbols to communicate (Crystal 9). This makes it different to as well as a more narrow definition of communication, (which could be animal communication or body language -a smile or gesture of limited variability – even if there are hundreds of gestures, they can hardly be compared to the thousands of words, and thousands more word combinations as well as the rate of new word development). It would seem to me, a duality would be unnecessary for an isolated individual. But it also seems important, to me, to consider what we mean when we say, “isolated.” Anyone who already has language acquisition pre-isolation would naturally use it. Anyone who was profoundly isolated from birth would most likely not survive (or at the very least be severely compromised). Humans don’t thrive without others. How does “private language” fall in between those two points?

I find the more I think about it, the more I see language as a secondary issue of our humanness. Humans are inescapably social, language is a function of our essential sociability. Might not language then be by default essentially social because we are de facto social? Whatever its qualities, it seems an easy thing to agree with Keller when she writes:

There is nothing more beautiful, I think, than the evanescent fleeting images and sentiments presented by a language one is just becoming familiar with – ideas that flit across the mental sky, shaped and tinted by capricious fancy (42).

Indeed, one hopes we never lose our capricious fancy.

*title from page 51: In the wonderland of Mind I should be as free as another.

** All quotes fromDover Thrift edition of  The Story of My Life unless otherwise noted

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Dissimulate Days

IMG_0006Bitter Lemons

In an island of bitter lemons
Where the moon’s cool fevers burn
From the dark globes of the fruit,

And the dry grass underfoot
Tortures memory and revises
Habits half a lifetime dead

Better leave the rest unsaid,
Beauty, darkness, vehemence
Let the old sea-nurse keep

Their memorials of sleep
And the Greek sea’s curly head
Keep its calms like tears unshed

Keep its calms like tears unshed.

– Lawrence Durrell

Lawrence Durrell’s non-fiction book, of the same title as his poem, Bitter Lemons, describing his time spent living in Cyprus (1953-56), is a beautiful account of one man’s attempt to assimilate himself into a culture not his own, to understand and illustrate through words what traveling does to one’s interior as well as exterior being.

How sad it is that so many of our national characteristics are misinterpreted! Our timidity and lack of imagination seem to foreigners to be churlishness, taciturnity the deepest misanthropy. But are these choking suburbanizes with which we seem infused when we are abroad any worse than the tireless dissimulation and insincerity of the Mediterranean way of life? (35)

The joy with which he describes the landscape, the people, the mood, and the air of Cyprus is wonderful. The difference between his English humor and the humor of Greek island people is some sort of beautiful mathematical equation.

His name is Frangos,’ he said, with an air of a man who explains everything in a single word. (39)

If you have read Lawrence’s brother, Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals, then you might find, as I did, a revisiting of a similar spirit in the first half of this book. But this is not a book told (retrospectively) from the eyes of a ten year old. As events and relations between England and Cyprus deteriorate, it takes on a much more lugubrious tone. Fear and paranoia permeate the air, but as happens, people forget to remember their grudges, especially once they have got to know and like one another. The tension within each person to toe the national line and conjure up hostilities for former friends is sad and moving, if not predictable.

My one cavil is that if I hadn’t read Amateurs in Eden (biography about the marriage between Nancy and Lawrence written by Nancy, but not Lawrence’s daughter) I never would have known that Nancy was with Lawrence for the duration of this period. In fact, if I’m not mistaken it is her simple and lovely line drawings that end each chapter, although, again I could find no credit given in Bitter Lemons that confirms the identity of the illustrator. That is strange. And unsettling. I wish I didn’t even have that piece of information because the amount of extra energy such an omission in an autobiographical piece of literature requires is so great as to perversely focus my attention where Lawrence clearly did not want it to go.

She walked about the harbor at Kyrenia with a book and with the distracted air which betokened to my inexpert eye evidence of some terrible preoccupation- perhaps one of those love-affairs which mark one for life. (97)

Durrell’s eye for subtle details and succinct suggestions of what lies beneath a look, posture, or smile is powerful.  I found the above quote haunting. Is there such a thing? To be marked for life? The sensitivity of Durrell’s observations are arresting, entertaining, and at times, simply profound.

Propaganda Deshabille

It’s a poor world where we are impartial through ignorance, prudent through impotence, and equal through mediocrity. – Freya Stark, Dust in the Lion’s Paw (271)

Eric Ryan in his Studio at Colgate University

Eric Ryan in his Studio at Colgate University

I came across an old newspaper article recently in which my father’s art was being reviewed. In the article he spoke about the conceptual aspects of his work and related it to the sort of literature which is something of a travel guide in the vein of Lawrence Durrell or Freya Stark. I have written about Durrell and his wonderful Alexandria Quartet, but I had not heard of Freya Stark, so I sought out her books and settled on Dust in the Lion’s Paw.

The fascists are bringing all their guns to bear against me. Nagi says ‘their hearts are boiling’ – long may they boil. But, dear Stewart, I do dislike this job. (28)

“This job” was her work as a propagandist for the English government throughout World War II in the Middle East. Stark was fluent in Arabic and slightly less so in Persian and so, despite her sex, was very easily employed in the seemingly unsavory line of work.

“A main obstacle was the unfortunate word propaganda itself. (64)

That’s probably more true now then it was at the time, but Stark makes an eloquent and impassioned defense of what she really considered to be persuasion. She had three rules of thumb she lived by:

1) To believe one’s own sermon.
2) To see that it must be advantageous not only to one’s own side but to that of the listeners also.
3) To influence indirectly, making one’s friends among the people of the country distribute and interpret one’s words. (65)

Number 3, was “not quite as vital,” (although led to a wonderful manifesto on words, translations, and humanity: Perhaps it is language, more than any other shackle, that circumscribes our freedom in the family of men? (48)) and barely merits a direct mention again, but 1 and 2 are rules to live by. Again and again in her dealings in Yemen, Egypt, Palestine and India she is true to her philosophy- the simplicity of which is profound and as far as I can tell, unarguable. Admittedly she and I have both been accused of naivete.

A woman asked if I didn’t think it time for us to give up using our lipsticks but I mean to be killed, if it comes to that, with my face in proper order. (102)

Stark is a marvelous writer. Punto.  Her sentences are gorgeous, with perfect clarity. While her oeuvre was by and large travel books, this was an autobiography full of letters and diary entries concerning the period between 1939-46.

The subtitle: The personal story of an extraordinary woman whose gift with words became a tactical weapon of war, struck me odd at first- I wondered a) who wrote it, and b) how true it would play out in the book. Still not sure about a, but on point b I can say, it’s all true. An old school humanitarian, her forthright English charm at once makes one sit up straighter in the chair, while her intellect and respect for the intellect of others disarms absolutely.

‘Most of my life is in the Man’s world,’ I find written in a rather morose note of my diary at this time. ‘Women are apt to think of it as the real one, but it is not so to me- filled with jealousies and now bloodshed. If women live more in the spirit, theirs is the real world-but I don’t know that they do.’ (51)

The heart of her book is not her struggles as a woman in unfriendly times and places. She doesn’t hesitate to mention the attempts to minimize and dismiss based on her sex, (unequal pay was a constant bother she never deigned to knowingly accept) but one feels through her words and view of the world all that is or could be good. All that really matters.

Art in objects or words- these are the markers that guide us through each other’s hearts, exciting us with fresh views in the familiar terrain of our humanity.

We have debased our words and pay for it by seeing nothing but counterfeit coins. They are forcing me to become a Press Attaché here in the north.[…] I hope to get out of it and sit quietly and move softly and love mercy and forget the atom bomb and all- and perhaps write a book or two about non-controversial matters such as the human heart. (260)

*Punto is Italian for period. Stark lived in Asolo, Italy before and after the war.

Mind At The Mercy of Multiplicity

Life does not accommodate you, it shatters you. It’s meant to, and it couldn’t do it better. Every seed destroys its container or else there would be no fruition.
– Florida Scott-Maxwell, The Measure of My Days (65)

DSCI0018I was given this most interesting book by a very old woman that I work for. The meditations and musings of Florida Scott-Maxwell: born in 1883, she barely attended school and yet was a prominent figure in the women’s suffrage movement, wrote books and plays and even became, in her forties, an analytical psychologist studying under Carl Jung.  The Measure of My Days, was written when she was in her eighties; the subjects in her mind were aging, death, life, God, love, hate and meaning. Old people, as she put it, “are people to whom something important is about to happen.” (138)

I used to  find it difficult to talk to people newly met. Speech felt precipitate. A silent knowing should come first, sitting, smiling, holding hands, dancing perhaps without words, but talking is too committal for a beginning. (30)

The above quote arrested me, firstly for its succinct charm, summing up how many people, like myself, feel and second for her use of the words “used to.” I hate the difficulty in myself, but gradually I sometimes have a feeling that it is slowly falling away.  I love the confirmation that that could be true. Scott-Maxwell, writing at her ripe age, mostly worried about shocking people with what she considered her most passionate years.

To me the pigeons say, “Too true, dear love, too true” I listened, looked out on the trees beyond both windows and I was free and happy. (123)

I may never hear a pigeon any other way. A deeply religious woman, but also honest and human. She was not above feeling hate, shame, or love.  Above all, the most fascinating quality about this book is that she was a woman, and wrote as a woman, both overtly and instinctively. Which is not to say there are elements of maternal earth-mother or, I-am-woman-hear-me-roar stereotypes, rather it is an unusual absence of the male perspective that we are all trained to think under—a palatable freedom from the male paradigm. She was who she was. She wrote as she thought and didn’t ask, or expect, you to agree. But it is as if the syntax of the male dominated domain of the intellect is slightly off, and it is lovely.

My answers must be my own, years of reading now lost in the abyss I call my mind. (7I)

For good and bad, she acknowledges a kind of radical understanding that the things that delineate us, not just male/female but: income, race, religion, intelligence, and luck- these things  include inequalities, yet describe individuals. We are none of us alike. That is life.  But in every life, by every means of measurement, there is a profound gestalt.  Florida Scott-Maxwell achieves that and more in her beautifully powerful final book.

*title from page 19 – I am awareness at the mercy of multiplicity.

Sun and Stone

To love with all one’s soul and leave the rest to fate, was the simple rule she heeded. – Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory (40)

DSCI0022

I regret my occasional tendency toward a penurious sympathy. While I am deeply empathetic to the underdog, I have been known to scoff or display ungenerous feelings of exasperated chagrin when reading page after page of the wonders of other people’s good fortune.   As I began Speak, Memory I was afraid I might come down with a severe case of exasperated chagrin. Nabokov is one of my favorite writers, and I didn’t want to disturb my love.  I was not at all sure I was in the mood to go along side the memories of a man who had an idyllically over-privileged aristocratic Russian youth and turned out to be a literary genius to boot – a gluttony of riches I pity myself never to have known.

And yet, this tremendous autobiography won me over in every way: content, form, and fancy all come together to tell a biography of an amazing life in an extraordinary time.

In choosing our tutors, my father seems to have hit upon the ingenious idea of engaging each time a representative of another class or race, so as to expose us to all the winds that swept over the Russian Empire. (153)

Nabokov begins the story with a natural focus on his mother, and she sounds wonderful, (the opening quote at top describes her creed) but it was in his loving and amused description of his various tutors and studies that I really became transfixed by the unique world of early 1900 Russia- to say nothing of his fascinating lepidopterology or esteemed father. By the time we come to his family’s exile, the simplicity and true profundity by which, through him, we have come to experience a slice of the vast beautiful curiosity and complexity that is Russia is fully realized in his regardant prose.

Nabokov is at once self-deprecating while at the same time scathingly opinionated. But what comes through most beautifully is his tenderness. Well into the book, if I am not mistaken in the chapter concerning his brother, whom he has painfully little to say (by his own admission) he suddenly addresses the reader- and it is you. You (Vera).

When that slow-motion, silent explosion of love takes place in me, unfolding its melting fringes and overwhelming me with the sense of something much vaster, much more enduring and powerful than the accumulation of matter or energy in any imaginable cosmos, then my mind cannot but pinch itself to see if it is really awake. (297)

He is telling the story to his wife. At each “you,” a stab of affection ran through my heart. With a delicious casualness reminiscent of Ada, or Ardor’s Van we know she is the meaning and purpose of this book, and his life. He never describes her, their meeting, or how they came to love each other, she is simply the one – you. By the end of the story the intimacy of his referring to her is completely out in the open. It is lovely.

Here is a man to whom everything good was given, a lot of which was taken away, and yet all that is good, worthwhile and true- all the love, remains.

This is ecstasy, and behind the ecstasy is something else, which is hard to explain. It is like a momentary vacuum into which rushes all that I love. A sense of oneness with sun and stone. A thrill of gratitude to whom it may concern- to the contrapuntal genius of human fate or to tender ghosts humoring a lucky mortal. (139)*
*Here he is explaining his passion for lepidopterology – the study of butterflies.