Tag Archives: reading

books and loves: an immigration

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“When he had taken a last swallow and put down the cup he’d get up and say thank you and go—so she had to think of something to say, quickly, to mend, justify, the pickup.
What about you?
It was the wrong thing—there! She’d done it, it came out god-awful as Showing Interest, and she thought she heard him take a breath in order to deal with it, with her; but he only put out his hand for the sugar-bowl, she hastened to hand it to him, he helped himself to another spoonful for the dregs in his cup. He would keep silent if he wanted to, he could speak if he wished, it wasn’t up to her.” ~ The Pickup, Nadine Gordimer (12)

I was staying at a beach house rental this past summer for a multi-family holiday and noticed a small bookshelf shoved off in a corner of the dining room. I always enjoy looking—just looking mind you I certainly don’t need more books to read— but I am curious, pure objective curiosity, as to what books there may be in any given corner of the world. So I took a gander.

Choosing a book has a feel that is similar to a pickup, doesn’t it? Especially when one is just looking at a random take-one, leave-one type shelf. It was an odd and motley mix. An unpredictable mix of high brow and low brow “summer reading” fare. What catches my fancy and why is an internal mystery I’m not sure I’ll ever fully understand. As I have matured I am only aware that I simple surrender to it—in love and books, it’s the same.

The Pickup by Nadine Gordimer is an extraordinary book. I’m still well under its fog. Whenever I get very involved in a work of fiction the feeling I have when I must turn the corner down and lay the book aside for a moment to deal with reality, is like coming back from another country, another realm.

This book, which concerns a South African woman, Julie, and an Arab man, Ibrahim, is a powerful account of the unaccountable intimacy between two people. Gordimer articulates by direct and indirect means, obscure and exact thoughts and language, the unexplainable attachment of two people—unexplainable to others, of course, but also to themselves. The story is told mostly from Julie’s perspective. The intensity of their difference: she a white woman, he an “illegal” from a poor Muslim village of an unnamed country highlights what is true in all relationships—the inescapable otherness of the beloved which occurs within the closed cocoon of a romantic relationship, a private sphere, alone and freestanding, within the outside world.

“Brooding in a bed in the dark has a kind of telepathy created by the contact of bodies when words have not been exchanged.” (187)

The story is beautiful, sensual, and oddly inevitable. The story follows the lovers from their pickup in South Africa to an unnamed desert of Ibrahim’s origin. I couldn’t think of any other way it could have ended—the ending being something of a beginning. There was a small chance of the man not acting so much like a man, but that was never going to happen, so the course upon which the novel struck at the end had to be.  And it leaves one feeling frustrated, resigned, and sad, while at the same time one surrenders to the romance, the unspoken parts, the fidelity to self, and trust in the other—and if not the other than the desert which stands for the stability of time and Nature, humbling us all, reminding us of our smallness in the face of its persistent, calm beauty. The book does not leave one thinking they can know how it all turns out, it only leaves one knowing it had to be this way.

“He gave his wife his smile, that of himself which was for this one: for her.” (155)

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Imperfect, But Trying

He proposes with such confidence and certainty because he believes himself to be a really rather straightforward person to live alongside—another tricky circumstantial result of having been on his own for a very long time. The single state has a habit of promoting a mistaken self-image of normalcy.
—Alain De Botton, The Course of Love (42)

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We’re all nuts and merely tolerating our beloved is the crux of love. At least according to Alain De Botton’s sweet and insightful novel The Course of Love. His novel takes off where most end: at the end of the beginning—the “happily ever after”—after the event of falling in love, where most novels, films, and love songs end.

We don’t need to be constantly reasonable in order to have good relationships; all we need to have mastered is the occasional capacity to acknowledge with good grace that we may, in one or two areas, be somewhat insane (85).

Interpolated in the story is the narrator’s calm analysis explaining the effects of the certain disillusionment that comes from close contact with another person. In the case of this particular story the persons involved are Rabih and Kirsten, an Edinburgh couple who are disappointed to discover in each other flaws that exasperate their own shortcomings. These exasperations result in the sorts of fights in which, for example, the absurdity of railing against a wife who is competent and nice seems logical, at least to Rabih. Kristen’s of a differing opinion in regard to her character but is also paralyzed by her own reasonableness which stems solely from fear of the out-of-control situations she experienced in her formative years.

“He’s calm, he likes to go walking, he doesn’t seem to think it’s such a terrible flaw that I’m ‘reasonable.’ Anyway, to get back to the larger point: How can I make it any clearer? Being nice is not boring: it’s an enormous achievement, one that ninety-nine percent of humanity can’t manage from day to day. If ‘nice’ is boring, then I love boring (171).

De Botton succeeds in making the reader care about the individuals and about the couple, and yet, his talent lies in the way in which one also identifies with the characters—maybe one more than the other (am I anxiously attached like Rabih or is Kirsten’s avoidance attachment more me? Jesus, I think I’m both. Is it possible it be both? That probably bodes ill, right? Damnit.) —and in this way the novel gives the reader a perspicuity into their own pathos. It’s an enormously clever book.

That may be why, in relationships, even the most eloquent among us may instinctively prefer not to spell things out when our partners are at risk of failing to read us properly. Only wordless and accurate mind reading can feel like a true sign that our partner is someone to be trusted; only when we don’t have to explain can we feel certain that we are genuinely understood (64).

It is temping, of course, to hold out for a mind-reader, but barring that, this book offers to frame love very differently than the classic, (albeit deeply appealing) romantic fantasy, and it is in many ways a more daunting, mature, but satisfying kind of love—a love that trusts. As I wrote here, in regard to De Botton’s book How Proust Can Change Your Life, I don’t particularly care for books that might be found on the self-help shelf, but I do rather like De Botton’s sly hand in delivering a penetrating look into where we misstep and why. His voice is at once forgiving and hopeful, and that is reassuring.

Fundamentally, De Botton advocates for the examined life. Empathy and caring can carry us through the landmines perpetually detonating as a result of our flawed childhoods. The glorious thing is, none of us are perfect. Not a one! There is no perfect one. There is just you and me. When we let go of the romanic ideal and let the beloved be imperfect, let ourselves be imperfect without hiding in either silence or acrimony, then we can all be ourselves—imperfect, but trying. That is the course of love.

 

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

Difficult to Locate, Easy to Distinguish

The contrast between what counts as language and what does not is usually clear enough, once we look for evidence of productivity and duality of structure in communicative behavior.
– David Crytal, How Language Works (11)

IMG_1208How Language Works is a comprehensive book on all aspects of language. How we speak, hear, read, write, communicate and conversate. Hmm, that last one is not a word, but why shouldn’t it be, or why shouldn’t I use it? After all, save official sanction, it has the features required – recognizable phonemes, and plausible meaning. And as Crystal will confirm, and I will second, (exhibit A that I am) spelling is a function of multiple skills which have little to do with reading. Therefore, lacking (at least) one of the said skill sets, hell, conversate looks good to me!

We think of our fellow-speakers as using the ‘same’ sounds, even though acoustically they are not. (67)

Taking the first- the recognizability of phonemes, Crystal explains the unique ability that our ears, throats and brains have to do this thing we call language. Not mere communication- but language. Broken down into as many parts as science has been able, the process is fascinating. In the same way that visual perception both aids and distorts what we see, auditory perceptions has its own modifications for better overall use even at the risk of obfuscation of reality. Just as in visual perception: repetition, constancy, and closure dominate. Our ability to pick out words, particularly familiar ones, such as one’s name, in a crowded room defies the decibel level and chaos of noise.

The fact that our unconscious brains find order while our conscious brains try to instill order is an interesting collision of consciousness. But our conscious system is nothing if not incomplete: while in English we have five written vowel sounds, in speech we have twenty. And don’t even get me or my son Augie started on the sad lack of written punctuation.

Why is it that in English the ‘l’ sound in ‘fall’ and ‘leave’ is considered the same, when everyone can feel that they are produced in very different locations in the mouth and throat? One language will make the conscious distinction, while others will not. Every language makes use and organizes its own sounds, but no language makes use of all the sounds we are physically capable of making.

The word meaning, Crystal tells us,  has upwards of of twenty meanings. Twenty meanings of meaning. Oh Dio. Without these multiplicities we would not have the spectacularly creative and wonderful experience of language, but I have a feeling that the misery too is contained within. Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood…

How did this all begin? I’m going to have to side with the Danish linguist Otto Jesperson who listed all the possible theories of language origination, but favored one: the ‘la-la’ theory. Such a lovely name I hardly feel the need to say more. But here it is:

Jesperson himself felt that, if any single factor was going to initiate human language, it would arise from the romantic side of life – sounds associated with love…(351)

Typically, our extended efforts to maintain order create their own complications. So much starts to seem arbitrary and then some French deconstructionist comes running in and blows the whole joint up, making matters worse! In the end, and yes, I’m talking to you grammar police out there, clarity and sincerity is all that counts. If you understand me, and if you believe in me we are experiencing linguistic communion of the highest order. And it’s lovely (regarding lovely: apparently it is a word that women make much more use of then men…).

The unconscious order is wondrously, marvelously complex, yet also, intensely directed towards purpose…of course, the meaning of the purpose is the real mystery.

*Title from page 56: Distinguishing vowels and consonants

 

It’s the little things

Now he was quite alone in a totally strange country. He did not know the name of his host or his host’s house. He pictured himself tramping from village to village saying: “Can you tell me the address of a young man who was hunting this morning? ”
Evelyn Waugh, The Complete Stories of Evelyn Waugh from Love in the Slump (61)

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Oh Evelyn Waugh- a weekend pleasure, rich wit, smooth prose, sweet charm; Love in a Slump (one among many) is a funny sort of tale.

Moreover, Tom suddenly remembered he was married. Of course he and Angela knew each other so well…but there were limits. (61)

This is what happens, I suppose,  when sense smothers sensibility. The little details like, where am I? Whose house am I visiting? oh that’s right, I’m married are so easily forgotten. At the risk of Waugh-esquely humiliating myself, I recall an evening not very so long ago when I was babysitting.  It got so very late it occurred to me to wonder what to do if the parents did not return. I was suddenly overtaken by severe alarm as I realized that I did not know the address of where I was, nor did I know the first name of the husband, or the last name of either spouse (they were friends of an acquaintance- long gone is the age of formal introductions).

I imagined my regretful call to the police, Yes, I’m sorry to say I have no idea where I am or whose children I am in charge of, but rest assured in every other way I am possibly over-qualified for the job… At the last moment I was spared having to make such an awkward call by the parent’s return.

Tom and I have a bit in common it would seem- a reserve that borders on stupidity, a pathological need to not make a bother, creating one thousand and one other bothers in our wake of polite deference.

His regard for her was sentimental but quite unaspiring. (57)

Waugh’s story is a gleefully glum look at a marriage On this basis of mutual sacrifice they arranged for their future. (58) But it’s quite funny. Many of the characters in this collection of his short stories are stunted by an inability to be present. Over and over again they flop from one hapless event to another, making apologizes as they go.

Waugh has a sharp focus on the dark undertones of life, but keeps every thing on the up and up in his most English proper style: sort of like a wicked dark chocolate cake adorned with a slightly sour crème fraîche  made sweetly tart by bright red raspberries. Delicious stories all.

Riverine Mind

Knowledge, like other good things is difficult, but not impossible; the dogmatist forgets the difficulty, the sceptic denies the possibility. (52)
– Bertrand Russell, Education and the Good Life

DSCI0013Seen in the light of 1926, when first published, Education and the Good Life, is an interesting, forward book with an excellent title. Read in 2013, it is an interesting, outdated book with an excellent title.

What will be the good of the conquest of leisure and health if no one remembers how to use them? (27)

An excellent question which is still worth asking. Russell argues for good and healthy childhoods and educations for all. He goes into near excruciating detail regarding the best methods of raising infants to babies- perhaps that is simply my own exhaustion of the subject, the chapters may very well keep the newly parented person in rapt attention. Most of what he says was new at the time, and has borne the test of time. I do have to disagree with his dismissal of swaddling. I was late to come to the ancient art, but found it not only helpful but logical. After all, an infant having  so recently been held in the intense confinement of the womb does find a familiar comfort in a tight swaddle- and it is strangely satisfying to make a pretty folded package of a little baby (most people sadly never learn how to do it properly). It is also a comfort for a mother’s immediate nostalgia for the time when the life she carried was safely contained. But this is a small matter and I digress.

It is only through imagination that men become aware of what the world might be; with it, “progress” would become mechanical and trivial. (30)

Bertrand Russell’s ideas are large and small flowing at a terrific rate, but he is at his best when he is in large philosopher mode. What he really wanted to emphasize in this book is the sense and beauty found in a balance between education as a form of utility and education as an aristocratic “ornament.” His ideas regarding that balance are true and beautifully stated. His Dr. Spock-ish manual of child rearing- a little less so. Once he gets off the formative early years where vitality, courage, sensitiveness and intelligence are practically applied to the average 3 or 4 year old, he gets into early education and cites Maria Montessori and her methodology at length.There is some, but little, to argue with his ideas, the problem is largely one of the information being fairly well accepted these days, so no longer particularly compelling reading.

I regard the cultivation of intelligence, therefore, as one of the major purposes of education. This might seem a commonplace, but in fact it is not. (74)

The sustaining interest of this book is the underlying philosophy. Particularly as we find ourselves in an age of “results” oriented and “skilled work force” propelled educations. More and more an argument has to be waged in defense of the classic liberal arts education; as if all subjects and thinking deemed superfluous should be eliminated. In many people’s minds a high score on a bubble test out-weighs anything that is not easily measured in a standardized exam. I would agree with Russell that mastery of precision matters but without art, imagination and critical thinking, it is to empty purpose. Not just for the individual but for humanity.

Perhaps I am old fashioned, but I must confess that I view with alarm the theory that language is merely a means of communication, and not also a vehicle of beauty. (31)

Faith and Madness

Apocalypse Now. This is the film I was least excited to see again in my film history class. War, Vietnam…and I saw it so long ago, I don’t remember loving it. I do remember however, really liking Hearts of Darkness, the documentary about the making of Apocalypse Now. And, since I first viewed the film I have read Heart of Darkness as well as the extraordinary Things Fall Apart, which was a native sort of response to Conrad’s book. So to come back to this film is interesting and not something I would have likely done on my own. I love school for this sort of opportunity.

 After all those qualifiers I will simply say – this is a remarkable film. First of all Coppola’s use of music is fantastic, I don’t even like The Doors but the opening sequence has got to be one of the best ever made. The music that overlays the beastly helicopters and chemical haze over the impossible natural beauty of Vietnam is melded together with such delicate contrary juxtaposition that the overall effect is highly artistic and  very moving.

“There is no way to tell his story without telling my own.”

Truer words were never spoken. Anytime we share a story or artistic interpretation we cannot help but insert ourselves into the very heart of it. We are discovering the journey of the renegade Kurtz while we are experiencing the journey of Captain Willard, at the same time that we are aware of the journey of Coppola, Joseph Conrad, perhaps even Chinua Achebe and the whole history of imperialism, colonization, wars, battles, oppressions- and, of course, it is our journey as well. What does a clash of civilizations look like, how do we force ourselves into other countries, into other people, into our own hearts?   Confronted with the brutalization of “lying morality” as Kurtz so beautifully writes to his son, how do we react?

The question is- how does one react to madness? It would seem that the only logical or at least predictable answer is- with madness.

And there is madness in our method. We simply – keep following the orders, keep moving. In one of the funniest sequences Coppola himself has a cameo as a news cameraman who is hysterically yelling to the soldiers, “Don’t look at the cameras, just go through- like you’re fighting!” That’s it.  Just go through. Go through the motions, even if you are pretending or pretending to be pretending, keep following the orders. And for God’s sake do not think. If you start to think of what you are doing, you end up like Kurtz. And he is scary.

But it’s hard not to. Coppola makes us feel the discomfort. His extreme close ups are wince inducing. The constant pearls of sweat, dark corners, and manic moments of facsimiles of joy all create an inner nervous condition. We’re not really crazy; we want to escape the madness. The feeling of creeping nausea tells us so. Maybe drugs will suppress the feeling, maybe we will just die inside, but the body knows. There is no real faking it.

“You have all my faith.” Possibly my favorite line ever uttered in a film. We all have faith, some give it to their God, some to the Earth, and some risk giving it to someone they love. There is no greater expression of love. Kurtz gives it to his son. After all that he has seen and knows he has nowhere else to lay down his core: he burdens his son with it, reversing the natural flow of a parent/child relationship. After his fellow man has so utterly failed, he is forced to turn to the innocence of his own child.

You have all my faith. It is everything.

And if faith is lost, what then? I hope you never know.