Tag Archives: love

Love, Logic, Love

The requirements of logic and the needs of a beloved supersede any contrary preferences to which we are less authoritatively inclined. Once the dictatorial regimes of these necessities have been imposed, it is no longer up to us to decide what to care about or what to think. We have no choice in the matter. Logic and love preempt the guidance of our cognitive and volitional activity.
—Harry G. Frankfurt, The Reasons of Love (66)

650e5eb9aa79c9932797325c265cde7d.jpg

Waclaw Szymanowski, Blooming Apple Tree 

I am involved in a year-long research project,* and now have an official reason to indulge my insatiable curiosity on the subject of love—oh joy! I mention it only to preemptively explain the expected preponderance of books about love, the senses, and neurology that may be forthcoming. Although, it occurs to me that there may already be a preponderance—or at least a driving theme— of such books in my reading habits. So be it.

There is a striking and instructive resemblance in the matter between love and reason. Rationality and the capacity to love are the most powerfully emblematic and most highly prized features of human nature. The former guides us most authoritatively in the use of our minds, while the latter provides us with the most compelling motivation in our personal and social conduct (64).

As Harry Frankfurt states, in his book The Reasons of Love, love and logic are what dignify us—they are “distinctly humane and ennobling in us” (64). The entire book is dedicated to examining the preeminence of love in our lives. The mere fact that “caring” distinguishes our attention; our affection; our past, present and future proves, by his lights, the very quiddity of the emotion. Why do we love? Because we care. Not selfishly, or even unselfishly—to use words such as ‘selfish’ or ‘unselfish’ distorts the question—love is a sine qua non condition of being human.

Bertrand Russell alludes to “the restfulness of mathematical certainty.” Mathematical certainty, like other modes of certainty that are grounded in logically or conceptually necessary truths, is restful because it relieves us from having to contend with disparate tendencies in ourselves concerning what to believe (65)

When we commit to loving, we no longer have to deliberate, consider, or weigh the options. That declaration of love—the ‘I love you’ (as Alain Badiou so eloquently described in its form of “stage fright”) is the leaving-off of doubt for the restfulness of certainty. The comparison to logic is clear, and yet, and yet…we all know that love is more prone to distortion than logic (although—politics, for one, could cure one of that notion as well). And we all know that certainty is the domain (again, Bertrand Russell, not to mention Voltaire) of fools and fanatics. Still, when I think of my own children I understand love perfectly. There, in my heart, is a restfulness like no other.

The fact that we can not help loving, and that we therefore cannot help being guided by the interests of what we love, helps us to ensure that we neither flounder aimlessly nor hold ourselves back from definitive adherence to a meaningful practical course (66).

Love, like logic, is constrictive in that we are compelled through the very laws of each to obey. That we do not necessarily choose whom to love is important. Who can solve the mystery of why this person and not that person? Frankfurt suggests that this is a form of freedom. The stage fright of ‘I love you’ is, in this light, a respectful fear of certainty. Given the horrific events in Orlando I am more afraid of people who hold rigid beliefs than I have ever been. I have never understood absolutism, belief, certainty, dogmatism….And yet I do think that love, as a manifestation of certainty, like logic, may inhabit unique space. Neither is capable of doing harm on its own, although both are often used to excuse acts of perversity which defy the very meaning of the words. Love and logic simply are.

One doesn’t choose to love their children anymore than one chooses to believe two plus two equals four. That seems obvious. Not having to constantly re-evaluate or reassess those truths is freeing. Frankfurt sticks to child-parent love for a reason, as he states it: it is a more pure love without all of the distractions of romantic love. Yet for all the complications and distractions, it remains true that all love is freeing in that it is binding. It binds us together and limits how we behave in accordance to what is good for the beloved and the lover: the demands of profane love, that which cares and is caring.

 

*I will be a 2016–17 Kahn Institute Fellow, in the “Shaping Perception” project. My proposed project, which may change slightly as my research develops, is on the relationship between the senses and the emotion of love.

Advertisements

That Goodly Mansion

DSC_0899.jpg

There is something truly wonderful about a very long book. And Charlotte Brontë’s Villette is indeed a very long book. With so much time to develop the characters the reader can sink deeply into the story no matter the pace at which they read it. Life, being what it is, forced me to renew this book at the library an embarrassing number of times. But this book, being what it is, will stay within me indefinitely.

“Do not let me think of them too often, too much, too fondly,” I implored. “let me be content with a temperate draught of this living stream: let me not run athirst, and apply passionately to its welcome waters: let me not imagine in them a sweeter taste than earth’s fountains know. Oh! Would to God I may be enabled to feel enough sustained by an occasional, amicable intercourse, rare, brief, engrossing and tranquil: quite tranquil!” (223)

Anyone familiar with one of my favorite books, Jane Eyre,  will be familiar with Brontë’s typical heroine. Both Jane and Lucy Snowe are sober, realistic, controlled but deeply feeling. They are orphans, not just in actual fact—but emotionally—they absorb the losses of their lives with equanimity to the point of capriciousness. This book, more than in Jane Eyre, deeply examines the English and Protestant underpinnings of that disposition. Set in Catholic France the cultural differences are pronounced by the added condition of expatria, and yet, what is truly wonderful about the book is the human feeling of loneliness and yearning for a true and intimate companionship that Brontë beautifully captures.

“As if one could let you alone, when you are so peculiar and so mysterious!”
“The mystery and peculiarity being entirely the conception of your own brain—maggots—neither more nor less, be so good as to keep them out of my sight.” (391)

Lucy can be a little sharp-tongued, but her honesty is refreshing and her wit is true and never malicious. Brontë’s characters are,to me, deeply appealing. Villette is not constructed like other novels of this genre. The plot takes time to get going, and the narrator’s relationship to the reader is fascinating.

Of course it was a particular style of the time for the narrator to address the reader—it is intimate—one becomes the special confidant and is subtly elevated to an active role. The famous closing remarks in Jane Eyre: “Reader, I married him,” still warms my heart, but in Villette there is an oddity in that the Lucy’s reserve extends to the reader as well—she does not reveal some of her thoughts or reactions, and sometimes she even refers back to times in which she did not relate all that her heart felt. In a subtle manner her relationship to the reader is like her relationships to the other characters int he book. If you listen to her, and withhold judgment or projection, the fineness of her character comes through.

“Happiness is the cure—a cheerful mind the preventative: cultivate both.”
No mockery in this world ever sounds to me so hollow as that of being told to
cultivate happiness. What does such advice mean? Happiness is not a potato, to be planted in mould, and tilled with manure” (315)

The novel takes place in the interior of Lucy Snowe’s mind. The brilliant thing that Brontë accomplishes with this mode of narration is that one understands that the mind is not the perfect narrator—there are things which we hide from ourselves before we even have a thought of hiding them from others. It is the complexity and isolation of the interior terrain of the mind that Brontë develops in a surprisingly avant-garde manner considering the pre-Freudian era it seems to have forecasted.

“If,” muttered she, “if he should write, what then: Do you mediate pleasure in replying? Ah, fool! I warn you! Brief in your answer. Hope no delight of heart—no indulgence of intellect: grant no expansion to feeling—give holiday to no single faculty: dally with no friendly exchange: foster no genial intercommunication” (287)

Ah, romance. Yes! of course it is a romance! One to swoon the heart at that. But it is the battle between the mind and heart that is Brontë’s specialty—and what I particularly love about her books. For all of Lucy’s quirks and stringent coping mechanism, Brontë makes clear that her heart’s raging passions are valued above all. And it is that estimation alone that makes her novels so deeply satisfying and pleasurable.

Villette. Everyman’s Library, 1909 edition.

*Title from pg 581: “I believe in that goodly mansion, his heart, he kept one little place under the skylights where Lucy might have entertainment, if she chose to call.”

**photo by Augustus Accardi

The Starting Point

As you can see, philosophy struggles with huge tension. On the one hand, love seen as a natural extravagance of sex arouse a kind of rational suspicion. Conversely, we see an apology for love that borders on religious epiphany. Christianity hovers in the background, a religion of love after all. And the tension is almost unbearable.
—Alain Badiou, In Praise of Love (15)

Evocation of Butterflies Odilon Redon.jpg

Evocation of Butterflies, Odilon Redon c.1912

Thus, when Kierkegaard was finally unable to contemplate the idea of marrying Régime, he broke with her. In the end, he represented the aesthete seducer of the first level, lived the ethical promise of the second and failed to make the transition, via the real-life seriousness of marriage, to the third level. Nonetheless, he visited the whole gamut of forms of philosophical reflection on love (15).

I, for one, have a very hard time forgiving Kierkegaard for this failure. A friend convinced me to give him another chance, and so I suppose I must, but I am always on the side of the heartbroken and against those that create a philosophy or moral that disregards, or attempts to repress, the truth of love: “as we all know, love is a re-invention of life” (33). Well, at least according to me and M. Badiou, as told in his compelling little book In Praise of Love (2009), a book composed of a conversation with Le Monde journalist Nicolas Truing  initially coming from a series of conversations from Avignon Festival’s “Theatre of Ideas.”

Badou begins the book by discussing some problems with the modern perspective of love. The first being the unwillingness to admit risk into one’s life which is perpetuated by online dating sites that advertise the possibility of finding your “soul mate” or perfect match risk free. And then:

The second threat love faces is to deny that it is at all important. The counterpoint to the safety threat is the idea that love is only a variant of rampant hedonism and the wide range of possible enjoyment (8)

And so one can see in the history of philosophy and religion an attempt to devalue romantic love. In philosophy the love of friendship is the gold standard while in religion, the transcending love of god, or some higher power, is the only true love. There is something in the temporal, mundane, and corporal nature of passionate love that make people feel exposed to their mortality and vulnerability I suppose.

But surrendering your body, taking your clothes off, being naked for the other, rehearsing those hallowed gestures, renouncing all embarrassment, shouting, all this involvement of the body is evidence of a surrender to love. It crucially distinguishes it from friendship. Friendship doesn’t involve bodily contact, or any resonances in pleasure of the body. That’s why it is a more intellectual attachment, and one that philosophers who are suspicious of passion have always preferred (36).

For Badiou, the idea of a transcending love is also off the mark. Love is about difference, not oneness. It is the “Two scene”, as he puts it, in which,in its role as a ‘truth procedure,’  “a certain kind of truth is constructed” (38).

the “Two scene” —is experience. In this sense, all love that accepts the challenge, commits to enduring, and embraces this experience of the world from the perspective of difference produces in its way a new truth about difference” (39)

All kinds of love, Badiou states, make it possible for us to feel that we do not have to experience the world as a solitary, but can experience it through the difference of the other, side by side. Certainly this must be true. I only have to think of the delight I take in seeing the world from my youngest son’s point of view. I think we all do that—it is easy to find joy in experiencing the world through our children’s eyes but somehow we are told this can not extend to passion. People often look for love (through online dating sites in particular) to find the perfect match—the one that is just like me!—and yet, for myself, what I love the most are the people that make me see the world differently, through their eyes, their minds, and of course in the case of romantic love, through their body.

Badou’s book is thought provoking and quite lovely, although I did hit a few snags when he got to Lacan. In a nutshell, Lacan declared that there is no such thing as a sexual relationship. Badiou clarifies the famously “shocking” proposition a bit, explaining:

Lacan doesn’t say that love is a disguise for sexual relationships; he says that sexual relationships don’t exist, that love is what comes to replace that non-relationship (19).

The reason why it doesn’t exist, according to the theory, is that the pleasure, while mediated by the other’s body, in fact takes you very far away from the other in the form of your own personal pleasure. I am not sure I buy this. After all, if sex where truly, solely, a narcissistic adventure, then why the need for an other at all? Masturbation would suffice for that, no? It is difficult to see, in fact, why the theory applies only to sexual relationships. In this light can there be such a thing as friendship if the pleasure of the friendship can only be felt individually. Maybe I am missing something. Coincidentally I have a rather large tomb of Lacan’s sitting on my to-read pile, so I will have to investigate.

But overall, Badiou’s book is a brave declaration, in this day and age, of the importance of love. The chance encounter that transforms into destiny. Badiou talks of the process of falling in love as the “event-encounter” from which love follows. The passages in which he focuses on the declaration of love is really wonderful and true:

The declaration of love marks the transition from chance to destiny, and that’s why it iso perilous and so burdened with a kind of horrifying stage fright […] That is the moment when chance is curbed, when you say to yourself: I must tell the other person about what happened” (43)

I love that—a kind of horrifying stage fright—I don’t think I’ll ever be able to get the image out of my head of those three little, yet infinitely powerful words, clinging to the curtains of the stage of my mind: the butterflies of I love you.

As Troung writes in the introduction to this book, “praise of love, sung by a philosopher who thinks, like Plato, whom I quote: ‘Anyone who doesn’t take love as a staring point will never understand the nature of philosophy.'” My thoughts exactly.

*published 2012 by Serpent’s Tail, trans. from the French by Peter Bush

Existential Mathematics

recalled the well-known equation from one of the first chapters of the textbook of existential mathematics: the degree of speed is directly proportional to the intensity of forgetting. From that equation we can deduce various corollaries, for instance this one: our period is given over to the demon of speed, and that is the reason it so easily forgets its own self.
—Milan Kundera, Slowness (135)

 

In researching my final film studies paper, I got happily (some might say, stupidly) sidetracked by an essay discussing the libertine novel genre. Through that essay I came to Kundera’s book Slowness which interpolates a modern day story with the story from the 1777 novella by Vivant Denon, No Tomorrow. The modern story relates a weekend spent at a French château in which some sort of political/scientific meeting is taking place. The narrator relates Denon’s tale of sexual ecstasy in a similar setting, to the pathetic tale of political “dancers” and their scurrying ilk.

If a dancer does get the opportunity to enter the political game, he will showily refuse all secret deals (which have always been the playing field of real politics) while denouncing them as deceitful, dishonest, hypocritical, dirty; he will lay out his own proposals publicly, up on a platform, singing and dancing, and will call on others by name to do the same; I stress: not quietly (which would give the other person the time to consider, to discuss counterproposals) but publicly, and if possible by surprise: “Are you prepared right now (as I am) to give up your April salary for the sake of the children of Somalia?” Taken by surprise, people have only two choices: either refuse and discredit themselves as enemies of children, or else say “yes” with terrific uneasiness, which the camera is sure to display maliciously…” (19-20)

Kundera has a gift for describing the cynicism of the world in all of its painful reality. The hypocrisy of it all is what is at the heart of our desire to forget ourselves and others—it’s too painful. Written in 1995, one can see—not much changes. Which is why the juxtaposition of the two stories is lovely and brilliant. In the modern story people are cruel to one another, thoughtlessly hurting each other and simple racing to get through it all and to forget it all as quickly as possible. Devon’s tale is one of shameless pleasure, of a night of slow love whose transience cannot touch the memory that lingers. Time to love, time to ponder the time spent loving, matters. And it is why slowness matters.

There is a secret bond between slowness and memory, between speed and forgetting. Consider this utterly commonplace situation: a man is walking down the street. At a certain moment, he tries to recall something, but the recollection escapes him. Automatically, he slows down. Meanwhile, a person who wants to forget a disagreeable incident he has just lived through starts unconsciously to speed up his pace (39).

Kundera has a preoccupation with memory and forgetting, with joy and sorrow, and the true humanity he suspects exists in his fellow citizens. His writing is poignant, elegiac, but always hopeful. He asks us to consider the speed at which we operate when the fleeting aspects of life rushing us towards death are the most painful to contemplate.

I finished reading this book while stuck in a massive traffic jam. This is how jammed it was—I literally read while I drove. The irony of being forced to a crawl, enabling me to finish Slowness, gave me almost enough delight to stave off the frustration of being stuck on a hot road breathing in the exhaust of all the other irritated cars and people. But what is the rush, really? what do have besides time? What should we do with that time? Race through, reach the finish line in record speed? Particularly in the environment I currently exist in which semesters come to a crushingly quick close, I know that this speed makes it impossible to retain all that is good in every day. I have a deep craving to slow things down. I have no time to read books that are not assigned to me, I haven’t time to get through all my work and do the laundry and feed my people—never mind feed my soul. And so, when I do it anyway—when I linger over dinner, chat with a friend,  read a book only because it gives me pleasure and makes me consider the fact that maybe we should slow down and love the people who will let us love them, or even write this blog while my three final papers still loom—I set aside the feeling of vulnerability and fear that my rushed life otherwise pretends to avoid: somehow thinking that to run away and bury ourselves in an all-consuming forgetfulness will be easier.

I beg you, friend, be happy. I have the vague sense that on your capacity to be happy hangs our only hope (156).

Kundera’s book, most of all, is about love, the kind of love that dearly departed Prince celebrates in his beautiful song (apologizes for the poor quality of the video, but as all Prince fans know getting ahold of internet videos of his music has always been like sighting a unicorn—and this brief interlude of access will most likely not last so enjoy what you can while you can). It is kind of love we all deserve in whatever form: slow love.

 

 

Suspended Fog

“Indeed it is a difficult business—this timekeeping; nothing more quickly disorders it than contact with any of the arts”
—Virginia Woolf, Orlando (174)

IMG_5733

One of the most wonderful qualities of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando is the manner in which she handles, moves, and manipulates time. Perhaps because I took an unusually long time to read this book I was particularly sensitive to that facet. These past few months in the novel of my life I have felt a similar effect of time twisting back on itself, restlessly running ahead, and then suspended in a fog of deep introspection. I suppose I was strangely in synch with Orlando’s odd tale which Woolf relates in a marvelously natural and nonchalant way.

“We must shape our words till they are the thinnest integument for our thoughts. Thoughts are divine etc.” (101)

It is the “etc” that charms. While there is something slightly chilly in Woolf’s writing that keeps her at a bit of a distance from me, I love her playful sense of humor and understatedness.

“And as the first question had not been settled—What is Love?—back it would come at the least provocation or none, and hustle Books or Metaphors or What one lives for into the margin, there to wait till they saw their chance to rush into the field again” (59).

After all, we share similar concerns and unrelenting questions. And while of course I mean Love, of course I mean other concerns as well, but really I mean Love.

Here she took up lodging and began instantly to look about her for what she had come in search of—that is to say, life and a lover (110).

I’m sure I am not giving anything away to say that her search was formally his search in the infamous plot twist of the novel. And yet, true to Woolf’s gift for writing, Orlando’s barely registered bemusement at his sudden change of sex makes perfect sense in the context of being a human being confined to one’s own life. What is there to be confused about? We are what we are, we have no way of knowing any other way of being, and so these details hardly merit notice. Save your passion and angst for the rest of it:

Hail! natural desire! Hail! happiness! divine happiness! and pleasure of all sorts, flowers and wine, though one fades and the other intoxicates; and half-crown tickets out of London on Saturdays, and singing in dark chapel hymns about death, and anything, anything that interrupts and confounds the tapping of typewriters and filing of letters and forging links and chains, binding the Empire together” (167).

Save your passion for Life and Love.

 

 

 

The Vital Imagination

“Our true awareness of one another is intuitional, not mental. Attraction between people is really instinctive and intuitional, not an affair of judgement. And in mutual attraction lies perhaps the deepest pleasure in life, mutual attraction which may make us “like” our traveling companion for the two or three hours we are together, then no more, or mutual attraction that may deepen to powerful love, and last a lifetime.” 
D.H. Lawrence, Pornography & So On (69)

Canova, Cupid and Psyche from The Louvre

Canova, Cupid and Psyche from The Louvre

A friend who knows of my love for D.H. Lawrence recently bought me two books: a first edition, fifth impression of the 1929 pamphlet Pornography and Obscenity and the 1934 book Pornography & So On which includes the former essay and then expands upon the thesis ending with several poems on the subject. The subject, of course, can not be in doubt in either case. Having been censured and accused of writing pornography frequently in his career, Lawrence takes an understandable interest in the subject.

“We take it, I assume, that pornography is something base, something unpleasant. In short, we don’t like it. And why don’t we like it? Because it arouses sexual feelings?
I think not. No matter how hard we may pretend otherwise, most of us rather like a moderate rousing of our sex” (10, P and O).

Lawrence  proceeds to try to uncover the root of the perversion of sexual feeling in English and American society. How such words as ‘pornography’ and ‘obscenity’ are used given that the meanings are so nebulous. He tracks it back to the 15th century, at the time when syphilis, or ‘pox’ began to ravage England and the royal families in particular. The recoiling in horror that ensued caused a fear and sense of ‘dirtiness’ which implanted itself deeply into the psyche of the affected societies.

“And pox entered the blood of the nation, particularly of the upper classes, who had more chance of infection. And after it had entered the blood, it entered the consciousness, and it hit the vital imagination” (63, P & So On).

The morbidity of fear, Lawrence argues, shuts us away from our own bodies. And once a feeling of shame or dirtiness sets in, all natural desire and comfort in one’s body becomes, as Lawrence puts it, “a dirty little secret.” The problem is not the words, the problem is the loss of individual instinctual relation to ourselves and eachother.

“The reaction to any word may be, in any individual, either a mob-reaction or an individual reaction. It is up to the individual to ask himself: Is my reaction individual, or am I merely reacting from my mob-self? […] Now if the use of a few so-called obscene words will startle man or woman out of a mob-habit into an individual state, well and good. And word prudery is so universal a mob-habit that it is time we were startled out of it”(9, P and O).

“Word prudery,” I love that. Now that swearing isn’t so universally shocking the politically correct mob has moved in, but that’s another subject. In Pornography & So On the second essay explores the consequences of our profound fear of consequences (I would add in here that women have several thousand years a head start on fear of consequences that, one could argue, may credibly account for the perceived, but proven false, difference between men’s and women’s capacity for arousal). Lawrence takes up those consequences as they pertain to the sad state of the visual arts.

“We have become ideal beings, creatures that exist in idea, to one another, rather than flesh-and-blood kin. And with the collapse of the physical, flesh-and-blood oneness, and the substitution of an ideal, social or political oneness, came a failing of our intuitive awareness, and a great unease, the nervousness of mankind. We are afraid of instincts. We are afraid of the intuition within us. […] Intuitively we are dead to one another, we have all gone cold” (70). 

Without naming him, Lawrence takes Clive Bell and his “Significant Form” to task, as well as other theorists of art, for a shallowness and blindness that misses the sorry truth of the state of art in modern times. Dripping with indignant sarcasm he writes:

“So the prophets of the new era in art cry aloud to the multitude, in exactly the jargon of the revivalists, for revivalists they are. They will revive the Primitive-Method brethren, the Byzantines, the Ravennese, the early Italian and French primitives (which ones, in particular, we aren’t told): these were Right, these were Pure, these were Spiritual, these were Real! and the builders of early Romanesque churches, Oh, my brethren! these were holy men, before the world went a-whoring after Gothic. Oh, return, my brethren, to the Primitive Method, lift up your eyes to Significant Form and be saved— “(93).

I don’t think Lawrence intends to be funny, but sometimes he does make me laugh with his passionate exhortations and implorings. They are over-the-top to most people’s sensibilities, but then, that may be his very point, and I really cannot help loving his consistency, good sense, and absolute commitment to his philosophy which makes healthy sense to me. In “Introduction to Painting,” Lawrence writes of the masses as “grey” people. Cold and grey. He points to Cézanne’s apples as the only instance he can find in which an artist truly paints the thing, is not afraid of the physical thing, and paints the whole thing in all its “appleyness.” I have written of Lawrence’s essay on Cézanne’s apples here, but I will end here with one last quote because I think it captures what he is on about. Lawrence doesn’t want cheapened, shallow, fleeting feelings. He argues for a true connection, without fear, between real bodies, the whole body, all the way around.

“Oh, be an apple, and leave out all your thoughts, all your feelings, all your mind and all your soul, which we know all about and find boring beyond endurance. Leave it out—and be an apple!—It is the appleness of the portrait of Cézanne’s wife that makes it so permanently interesting: the appleyness, which carries with it also the feeling of knowing the other side as well, the side you don’t see, the hidden side of the moon. For intuitive apperception of the apple is so tangibly aware of the apple that it is aware of it all round, not only just of the front. The eyes see all fronts, and the mind, on the whole, satisfied with fronts. But intuition needs all-aroundness, and instinct needs insideness. The true imagination is forever curving round to the other side” (123).

Plaster of Canova's Cupid and Psyche from The Met. The detail, which to me holds the appleyness is in that missing shoe...for some inexplicable reason Canova eliminated that powerful expression of the instinctive imagination in the finished sculpture at the Louvre.

Plaster of Canova’s Cupid and Psyche from The Met. This unfinished detail I photographed looks to me as a sandal, I can’t tell if Canova never intended to have a sandal, but to me, that (mis?)perceived detail of only one sandal left on her feet holds the appleyness. I was so excited when I saw it. Nevertheless, what seemed to me a powerful expression of the instinctive imagination, is absent from both finished sculptures at the Louvre and The Hermitage, St. Petersburg.

Out of the Deleatur

What torments people have to go through when they leave the safety of their homes to become embroiled in mad adventures.
—José Saramago, All the Names, (88)

IMG_4770

Anyone who is familiar with the writing of José Saramago will know that he has a distinct style and tone. All the same, as I read All the Names I was struck by the very strong similarity to a children’s book of his that I read to my youngest son a few years back, The Tale of the Unknown Island. The stories are of course different, but the phrasing and word choice is very like. I became convinced that they must have been written in proximity to each other and, how exciting! I was right—as it turns out, Saramago wrote both stories in the same year—1997.

That’s what has happened to me, he added, inside my head, and probably inside everyone’s head, there must be a kind of autonomous thought that thinks for itself, that decides things without the participation of any other thought (52)

Saramaga eschews quotation marks altogether, marking a change of speaker by a comma and a mid-sentence capital letter. His prose come practically paragraph-free (a typesetter’s dream my good friend and typesetter tells me—now that I think of it, he is the one who suggested I read this book—we share a love of Saramago). Saramago’s books take place in the interior of his character’s minds and standard punctuation has no place there. Once you are in his books there is an undisturbed flow to it all—you are next to the narrator, falling in love with his patient, wry, and kind voice.

“It is well known that the human mind very often makes decisions for reasons it clearly does not know, presumably because it does so after having travelled paths of the mind at such speeds that, afterwards, it cannot recognise those paths, let alone find them again” (12).

Both The Tale of the Unknown Island and All the Names deal with the same subject in the same way. In All the Names the protagonist is a man named José. He works in the kafka-esque atmosphere of the register’s office in all its magisterial pettiness and labyrinthical paper trails. Rather than embarking on an escapade to the unknown island, José is led, by himself—by the unfathomable mystery of his own mind’s logic— on an investigative search for the unknown woman. Why? he hardly knows. Why search for the unknown island when everyone knows it doesn’t exist? Why find the unknown woman when her existence is merely a clerical matter?

The phone book’s in there, I don’t feel like going into the Central Registry just now, You’re afraid of the dark, Not at all, I know that darkness like the back of my hand, You don’t even know the back of your hand, If that’s what you think, then just let me wallow in my ignorance, after all, the birds don’t know why they sing, but they still sing, You’re very poetic, No, just sad (55).

Thusly, José conducts conversations with himself throughout the story. The Tale of the Unknown Island is of course a tale about Love. Love is the unknown island that others scoff at and hold snide doubts about its very existence. The unknown woman of All the Names is the object and subject of Love. Saramago touches on the universal quality of Love that strikes like lightening individually. All the names of the unknown hoards of people deserve, want, and need Love. To deny that fact is to perform a depraved sort of deletion. Some delete themselves. And then, institutions, even those of record keeping—in their maniacal effort to keep track of individuals—erase the actual individual.

It doesn’t seem a very good rule in life to let yourself be guided by chance, Regardless of whether it’s a good rule or not, whether it’s convenient or not, it was chance that put that card in his hands, And what if the woman is the same one, If she is, then that was what chance offered, With no further consequences, Who are we to speak of consequences, when out of the interminable line of consequences that come marching ceaselessly towards us we can only ever distinguish the first (34)

In my lunch hour at my summer internship at the Met this past week, I happened upon one of the smaller shows that is currently on exhibit, About Face: Human Expression on Paper. The photo above is part of the exhibit. The photograph was taken by Hugh Welch Diamond in the mid-1800s. It is of a patient of the Surrey County Lunatic Asylum. At the time it was thought that insanity somehow presented itself in the physiognomy of the face and all manner of strange experiments, sometimes involving electrodes applied to various muscles of the face, were rather callously conducted. I find the photograph to be quite beautiful. Given the early-photgraphic era when it was taken, it is perhaps strange that she has a smile on her face, but if we didn’t know she was in an asylum one could invent entirely different circumstances around her life.  She is an unknown woman to me. But the connection that crosses the decades from the smile on her lips to mine is what makes us all feel alive to one another—it is Love writ large. That smile is not unknown to me. One of the most meaningful qualities of art and literature is that it fosters a feeling of human connections to one another. Art stands witness to our longing to connect and for not deleting ourselves or our desire to Love.  For the briefest moment I know and love that unknown woman. And, I know that I too am the unknown woman.

* title from p. 13: “it would not be the first time in the history of the deleatur that this had happened.”  Deleatur, for those unfamiliar with the term, is the proofreader’s mark that looks like a drunken Y and is from the Latin meaning “let it be deleted.”