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Monday, May 4, 2015

Contemporary maxims suitable for wall or shelf

Did you know that for $99, you can get "Happiness Pennants" to mount above your fireplace?  Or, for rather less, you can remind people in your household to
I've been noticing this trend since about March, and furtively taking pictures, wondering what to make of our tendency to decorate walls, pillows, mailboxes, and mugs with words.  


Such maxims have a long and varied cultural history.  We have Aesop's fables with their tightly-expressed advice.  Proust's beloved grandmother reads Madame de Sevigny.  Gandhi advised us to "Be the change you want to see in the world," advice I try to make one of my principles.  It is unarguable: something we all need to do.  At the same time, does it ask us to do something we may inherently be too lazy to do:  think about what needs changing and about how our behaviour might change that?  We also have to believe that our tiny gestures matter.  So we don't argue with it, but I also don't know how much these words govern the way we live.   I need only type in "Do unto others...." and you know exactly what I'm talking about.  Or do you?   Has the maxim become the cliche, which poet Robert Hall once described as "the cinder block of language":  something functional that you don't really think about?


Some of these seem to be stands-ins for family crests: a statement of who we are.  If you have a cottage and also own a pillow that says "I love the lake," isn't that a bit redundant?  If you don't own a cottage and have the same pillow, it's an expression of nostalgia or desire.  But is a pillow the right place for it? 

"Paris is always a good idea" might identify you as one of the adventurers-in-the-know, except that the piles of mugs suggests that clearly there are quite a number of you out there.  "All you need is warm socks" is certainly heartwarming and quirky--knitters would doubtless agree--but warm socks are pointlessly comforting on a hot day when you have lost the love of your life.










Other examples, like the "Happiness Pennants" seem to be advice.  Once upon a time, I liked the phrase "It is what it is," because it seemed to express a kind of Buddhist acceptance. Then I began hearing it too often and realized that it also expressed a demand:  "It is what it is!  Deal!"  Or it advocated apathy or helplessness.  I soon realized that I had my own version was "Whatever it is, I can probably work with it."





 I should probably delighted that we are adorning our walls and sofas with words, but I'm not.  These all seem too easy, unearned.  I have a sense that we give them lip service and then go on with our lives.  

"Am I a snob?" as Woolf once famously asked?  Am I drawing a false distinction between a popular trend and my own mantras, some of which might be suitable for pillow or plank?  "Just be curious" is rule number one for me.  It speaks of a way of orienting myself to the world and to the people in it.  It's a reminder to be curious before I get judgmental or resort to stereotypes or other methods of avoiding hard thought.  I suppose my second, if I had to put it briefly, would be "Talk.  Listen.  Listen.  Talk."  But that doesn't quite capture the way I think that conversation and dialogue are at the centre of everything from our most intimate relationships and to the more successful civic discourse that helps us negotiate the challenges of living in communities that seek to be fair and inventive.  It also doesn't quite capture the fact that I believe having a voice that is respected and heard is one of our most primal needs--right after love.

"Whenever possible, say something kind.  Give praise where it's earned" might be my third.  Apparently there are parts of my brain that give me a hit of dopamine every time I do this, but I simply feel that being human is hard work and people deserve to be told when they've done a particularly good job of it.  "Be where you are" is probably my fourth, but it is meant to be evoked in those moments when you are with someone else, but aren't quite focused, attentive, or patient, as well as in those moments when you are out walking on a lovely spring evening, but are texting madly away.  It's my old fart's objection to the fact that too much of the time we're where our technology has taken us, not where we actually are.  In my old  fogey's way, I'm worried about what is going to happen to our sense of community, our daily treatment of others, our environmental goals--not to mention our driving--if we're not actually where we are.  If I'm in my device and not out for a walk, what's the point of saving the planet?  It's this maxim of mine that makes me suspect that our little phrases come as much out of the things that bug us as much as out of our own wisdom.

I think four of these is about all I can manage.  (Please let me know if I've left out something earth-shattering.)  And each of them is associated with a particular recognition or "aha!" moment that I can still recall, and then a period of reflection.  Only later did the principle get whittled down to maxim length  for easy recall.  "Hmmm.  I know I got a principle for this kind of situation....Right. Just be curious."  

Dare I say, at the risk of being called a snob, that what these mugs and boxed canvases do is to allow us to feel that we're on the right track--of course, we must be:  somebody's marketing it!--without thinking about what that track really involves.  (Yes, Katherine, it's' all system one thinking.)  You want words:  pick up a book that puzzles you.  You want a graphic image on your wall?  How about a painting that you return to again and again, fascinated, without completely understanding it.  In spite of my own mantras, I think it's puzzles we want and need, not certainties.  Unless you're talking about flossing and flushing.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Fear vs. Spring: In Praise of the Commons

I regularly get furious at the world view implied by our politicians and the media that cover them without asking enough questions, and I've been tempted to blog about it.  Stephen Harper and his Conservatives want us to be frightened, to be convinced that terrorists are a major threat in North America.  In turn, they want pubic policy to be devoted to addressing those threats with equally terrifying legislation like Bill C-51.  They don't want us to ask questions about the missing and murdered Aboriginal women or to consider what we might do about climate change--two much more important issues.  The media frequently and uncritically conspire, repeatedly running stories about three Muslim women who made their way through Turkey to ISIL in Syria, or interviews with neighbours who knew "Jihadi John" when he was a mild-mannered member of their community.   What makes me  most angry is the way fear changes the social contract, making us more distrustful of others, urging us to focus on ourselves and our personal safety rather than the needs of our society, prompting us to adopt what Northrop Frye once called a "garrison mentality" that estranges us from everyone whose values or appearance might be "different."

But my temptation to write an angry, scathing blog has been, thankfully, assuaged by two things.  One is a change in the news cycle that is now dominated by the Duffy trial, by the accord between Ontario and Quebec that created a cap-and-trade system for carbon that involves almost 70% of Canadians, and by the CBC's series on missing and murdered Aboriginal women.  I never thought I would thank Mike Duffy for anything, much less for making me feel as if it was 1973 again and as if my first responsibility when I got home from work at night was to see what new revelations the day's testimony had brought.  But at least we're forced by Duffy's trial to think about our own institutions and their values:  this is something we can change, and for the better.

Spring also dissuaded me from writing a cranky blog.  Or rather, it made wallowing in anger something I had no heart for, beginning on March 16 when I saw three robins in my back yard--the earliest I've ever recorded seeing robins.  Then bit by bit the weather encouraged me to look up from my burrow.  It wasn't a very pretty world I saw, a fact that was made dramatic by the two snow storms we've had since the general thaw:  I would get up in the morning and beauty would be back.  

But when you are as addicted to beauty as I am, you search it out.  Or perhaps one could say that the changing weather--weather that made promises and then took them back before making more extravagant promises--prompted me to keep noticing.  The brilliant literary critic, Peter Brooks, has convinced me that in Europe and North America at least, we tend to pay the most attention to what we can see.  No, that's not quite what he says.  He maintains that a "scopophilic regime" permeates Western thought, from the philosophy of the Greeks to the current moment with all of its YouTube cat videos and photographs of meals we're about to eat.  (Brooks wrote Reading for the Plot well before Facebook and YouTube:  he'd be shocked at how right he was.)  Perhaps that tendency is summed up in the cliche "Seeing is believing."  But last weekend when I was driving south on Pasqua, I heard frogs.  I can't tell you how much I love the sound of frogs in the spring; I can't even explain why I love them so.  I only know that when Bill wants to give me a spring-time treat he doesn't offer ice cream or chocolate, but a ride, often west on Thirteenth, to see if we can't hear some frogs.  We park by the side of the road and I just listen.  If birdsong is the expression of a celestial, airy joy, then the singing of frogs is birdsong's earthy counterpart.  And there's something profoundly earthy about spring.

I have also been listening to the conversations my male and female downy woodpecker have in the back yard.  Then last Friday when I was gardening, I heard the characteristic squeek of a mourning dove in flight, even before its haunting call. As I was cleaning out the front flower beds, I found little unravelling green buds of silvermound and flax just as the mourning dove arrived. So I've been looking more carefully the last week, even getting to the point of thinking that the still subtle landscape was the colour of juncos and sparrows--shades of browns and greys.  Then today the trees suddenly exploded with buds.

Here's the thing about spring.  About weather or sunshine or birdsong or the richer, longer light of April days.  It belongs to us all, to what we call "the commons."  If you want a perfect illustration for this, go into a restaurant or a store on a lovely day and talk to your server or cashier about the weather--weather they're not going to get out into for quite a few hours yet.  They're as blissed as you are.  They're probably blissed, in part, because you are.  Working retail is a slog, but I imagine it's a real slog during the coldest and darkest winter days when we're all cranky.  

Things that belong to the commons, to us all, are the antithesis of the Duffy trial and all the news about terrorist threats.  The pleasure we take in spring doesn't belong to the world of commodities or expense accounts, and it's something we instinctively share with the people around us, not something that divides us, the way fear does.  Weather belongs to us all, reminding us in the way neither politicians nor the news has been (except in the case of B.C., Ontario and Quebec), that it is a shared joy and shared responsibility. 

Monday, March 30, 2015

Craftsmanship, Art, and being who you are--a little more each day


Last Sunday, Bill and I went to hear "Octagon," the Canadian octet which was brought to Regina by the Cecilian Concert Series.  It was one of the top ten concerts I've heard in my life--this from someone who in her sixties heard Leonard Cohen the last time he was in Regina and from a once young impressionable woman who heard young Zubin Mehta conduct the Israel Philharmonic in a concert of Haydn, Berg, and Bruckner.  The very first notes of the Beethoven Septet announced that this would be one of my life's extraordinary concert memories.  At first what  you hear is the craftsmanship:  that every note is precisely in tune, that the rhythm is crystal clear across the entire ensemble, that the timbre of each instrument captures the spirit of the music.  Perhaps the first violin's sound is crystal clear, while the bassoon offers a throaty counterpoint.  These are largely matters of technique:  each of these musicians has doubtless practiced countless scales and studies, has played with their instrument's emotional range.  Craftsmanship for a musician means practice:  over and over and over and over the same lick, the same 8-bar phrase, the same difficult transition.  

Craftsmanship is the foundation for almost anything I call art.  (There are things that other people call art that have nothing to do with craftsmanship, and that's okay.  It's just not art for me.)  Whether it's Mark Rothko's ability to spread on half a dozen layers of the thinnest paint so that his colours have nuance and their wonderful luminous, ambiguous edges; Virginia Woolf's ability to write prose that exactly echoes the jist of her meaning; or the ability of a violinist to move through a rapid passage without turning a hair, most art is built on craftsmanship.  Most craftsmanship requires practice.

But the wonderful thing is that the craftsmanship immediately gains the reader's, viewer's, or listener's trust, so that the artist or performer can then go about the business of building up a complex work of art.  You hear craftsmanship in the first paragraph of a fine novel or the first stanza of a strong poem.  You see it in the way Whistler handles paint.  You hear it in the very first bars of a string septet.  Beyond the craftsmanship, the art begins building up layers.  There is the shape of each phrase for each instrument; there is the way these phrases fit together--each a distinct voice but also part of a greater whole.  One of the wonderful things about chamber music, and one of the reasons I'm loving chamber music more and more, is that it's possible for you to hear the magic of individual voices cohering in a dialogue. 

Then the phrases build up to something larger. This was an exhausting concert to go to--and doubtless an exhausting concert to play.  The Beethoven Septet clocks in at around 48 minutes for its five movements,  and the Schubert takes nearly an hour for its six movements.  Each of these movements of these great but too-seldom-heard works revealed what I love about music.  Composers of the calibre of Beethoven and Schubert take the most intense moments of our lives and manage metaphorically to bottle them in a few moments of music.  Think about it:  music seldom seems to want to provide a sound track for the ordinary and boring moments of one's life.  What artists capture are those ten minutes of melancholy reverie, or that simple, extraordinary joy you felt when a child was born, or that period of your life when everything was in flux and your feelings changed from minute to minute, as they do in a theme and variations.  It's no wonder that all art aspires to the condition of music, for nothing gives us quite that access to the world of pure emotion that music gives.  Over the course of a little over two hours, I felt as if I'd lived many, many years, skimming along the high points of a life.  All this made possible, in the first instance, by craftsmanship.

I have been having my own musical adventure in retirement.  In January, I went back to playing the piano more regularly, and for some reason started with the book of studies my wonderful Winnipeg piano teacher, Ada Bronstein, gave me.  (Maybe I'm finally grown up enough to see the benefits of discipline--and craftsmanship.)  Each practice starts with these.  They are called "velocity studies," so each time I play them, I try to find the sweet spot between velocity and accuracy--which for me means hitting the right notes in more or less the right rhythm.  I could practice all day every day for the rest of my retired life and never reach the level of craftsmanship of the musicians in Octagon.  But that's okay because each day or three something shifts just a little bit, and the sixteenth-notes in the left hand arpeggios are more even, or the scale passages in the Mozart Sonata I'm working on go more smoothly.  Which makes me smile and prepares me to go back to slogging away at aesthetics and Virginia Woolf and doing what Woolf herself called that difficult thing:  saying exactly what I mean.  There's craftsmanship there, as well, but my ear can tell when my scales are even; I'm not always sure whether my argument is going to mean anything to anyone but me.

"Self-determination theory" is one of the newer kids on the psychological block, though it has its roots in the 70s.  As I've learned about it, the SDT experts have discovered that people have three needs:  a sense of competence at something, a sense of autonomy, and a sense of relatedness or belonging to a community.  One of the powerful things about the practice of craftsmanship is that is develops our sense of competence and autonomy at the same time.  If you are patient with yourself, as I am being over my piano practice, you can note and appreciate the smallest gains you are making.  And you are making them entirely for yourself, at least in the first instance.  Last night, my daughter Veronica was here for her weekly Sunday dinner, and she brought a sweater that she's been working on for quite some time and wants to be able to wear now that it's nearly spring.  She has taken incredible care as she goes to get it to fit right, even going so far as to knit up and block a swatch of the wool and to adjust her needle size on the bottom lace edge so that her sweater doesn't gape in front the way so many others do.  (You can see pictures of knitting projects on Ravelry to see how a sweater fits.)  Last night, she was setting in sleeves so carefully that they simply seemed to flow from the shoulders.  I was impressed; she was jubilant.  

Craftsmanship seems to live in another world altogether when it's so dramatically present in a musical performance, a poem, or a painting.  Yet the sense of competence and autonomy that they bring to our everyday lives when we knit a sweater, make a quilt, put a nice loaf of home made bread on the table, or practice a scale can allow us to feel a little bit more like who we really are or who we have the potential to be--the person inside that we aim toward each day when the busy-ness of life doesn't sabotage us.  And being ourselves is a kind of work of art, isn't it?


The octet is made up of Martin Beaver, violin; Mark Fewer, violin; Rivka Golani, viola; Carole Sirois, Cello; Joel Quarrington, double bass; James Campbell, clarinet; Kathryn McLean, bassoon; and Ken MacDonald, french horn.  Most of these musicians are soloists in their own right.

The quilt in the picture is one of the first I've designed to warm up the rooms at Sofia House, Regina's women's shelter.

Monday, March 16, 2015

The value of keeping a diary

Of late, I've been prompted to think about diaries for quite a number of reasons.  The most obvious prompt is my work with Virginia Woolf's 5 volumes of diaries.  There we find not only accounts of her rich and busy social life, but of her reaction to historical events.  Although politics had seldom come into her diaries, once Hitler began reshaping Germany's priorities and making his appalling radio speeches, she and Leonard listened intently, and the politics of Europe--along with her plan to challenge those politics by continuing to write--became a central topic of her diary.  

Her diaries are also invaluable to the literary scholar, for there we can see the seeds of each of her major works:  how they begin to take root, how they go on smoothly or become, like The Pargiters (which would, after a great deal of agonizing work, become The Years and Three Guineas) recalcitrant.  She writes with such awareness of the hopes she has for her evolving work, which often begins, as Jacob's Room did, with little more than a mood. As soon as “Mrs Dalloway” “branched into a book” she knew, more or less what it was to be about:  “I adumbrate here a study of insanity & suicide:  the world seen by the sane & the insane side by side—something like that” (Diary 2: 8 October, 1922; 207).  The following June, she would enlarge on this purpose:  “I want to give life & death, sanity & insanity; I want to criticise the social system, & show it at work, at its most intense” (Diary 2: June 19, 1923; 248).  Yet having a clear vision of her novel’s content didn’t preclude concerns about its form, its design.  In August, she was triumphant about one of her discoveries:  “how I dig out beautiful caves behind my characters; I think that gives exactly what I want; humanity, humour, depth.  The idea is that the caves shall connect, & each comes to daylight at the present moment (Diary 2: 29 August 1923; 262).  

But thinking only of their use to a literary scholar is a bit backwards, it seems to me.  What use did they serve her as she sat down, quite regularly, to write in books she often bound herself after a long day's work and a late afternoon tea?  Perhaps for an answer to this, we might go to her earliest diary, published as Passionate Apprentice:  The Early Journals.  I have only recently come to these because they weren't, honestly, of much use to the "literary scholar," except when L.S. gets toward the end of her research and realizes that before she sends her manuscript off to McGill-Queen's University Press she had better do her due diligence.  I read them while I'm waiting for doctor's appointments or when I'm sitting in the back yard minding the little water pump that we're using to keep the water from continuing to flood into the basement yet again.  

Woolf began her first diary in one of those little books designed for diaries--so much room per day encouraging you to fill it up or to be more economical with your words--when she was fifteen.  I don't think we know who gave her the book or why, but she had just recovered from the struggle with insanity that followed her mother's death when she was twelve, and perhaps someone wise thought that keeping a diary would give a structure to her day or a place for reflection.  Certainly she found a "form" for her daily record, which often began by recording a morning walk with her sister Vanessa or with her father on those mornings when Vanessa went to her art classes.  It is very easy to be critical of her doctors for what they didn't know or understand about mental illness in 1894, but the advice to get exercise--four hours a day--was sound, as it still is.  Then would be recorded the day's errands and activities, ending with what she's reading and a brief note of reaction to it, which frequently closed the day's record.  It is astounding how much she read at the age of 15, much of it heavy-duty nonfiction like Carlyle's French Revolution or Froude's 8-volume History of England, or "my beloved Macauley," also author of a multi-volumed history of England.  Many of these entries end with the phrase "Gave back X, got Y," as if her father is the keeper of a lending library, though in truth he was undoubtedly ensuring that she wasn't taxing her vulnerable brain.  Novels were kept for nighttime reading--the Brontes, Sir Walter Scott, George Eliot, as well as the now largely forgotten authors of "middlebrow fiction."  Woolf's step-sister, Stella, died that year shortly after being married and after a lengthy and puzzling illness.  Woolf's entries during Stella's illness and after her death continue, though they often become very brief. At the end of the year she concludes that "Life is a hard business--one needs a rhinirocerous [sic] skin -- & that one has not got" (132). But she also writes on January 1 of the following year "Here is a volume of fairly acute life (the first really lived year of my life) ended locked & put away" (134).  There are all kinds of reasons she might see this as her first really lived year, but I would suggest that keeping a diary and engaging in the self-consciousness that act required is one of them.

The person who suggested that she keep a diary or who gave her the little volume was as smart as Dr. Savage, who recommended exercise.  There is actually a robust literature about the benefits of keeping a diary.  As Tara Parker-Pope wrote in The New York Times on January 19, 2015, "Studies have shown that writing about oneself and personal experiences can improve mood disorders, help reduce symptoms among cancer patients, improve a person’s health after a heart attack, reduce doctor visits and even boost memory."  This research focuses on the way in which our diaries give us an occasion to reconceive ourselves.  For example, students who were struggling at Duke University were introduced to narratives of senior students who had felt as helpless as they did; then they were encouraged to write, and perhaps rewrite, the narrative of their own experience.  As Parker-Pope writes, "In the short term, the students who had undergone the story-changing intervention got better grades on a sample test. But the long-term results were the most impressive. Students who had been prompted to change their personal stories improved their grade-point averages and were less likely to drop out over the next year than the students who received no information."  But how do these occasions for expressive writing (of which diary writing is a subset) differ from the Facebook status updates where we share our latest find among the plethora of wise sayings that have proliferated all over our culture--on cards, pillows, coffee mugs and "happiness pennants" (available for $99) and so affirm something important about ourselves, our worth, our values?  (More about happiness pennants et al in a future post--complete with photographs.)

My wise friend Katherine says that when we sit down to purposefully write, particularly when it's with a pen in a physical journal, we slow ourselves down, our reflections become deeper, and we can access what Daniel Kahnemann calls our System 2 thinking, which goes beyond the easy, the comfortable, and the intuitive, which forces us to think of counter-examples and to do reality checks. It is very easy for us, partly because we are so busy and partly because of the way our brains are organized, to ignore evidence that doesn't support our biases, and so to avoid the uncomfortable untruth about ourselves.  Under the influence of early "feminists" like Virginia Woolf and Anais Nin (hence the quotation marks), I've kept a diary for years and years (many now mouldering in my damp basement).  During my divorce in 1986, my diary did yeoman's service--with a caveat.  Because I realized that Veronica could some day read them, ranting about my ex-husband was right out.  Instead, this became a place for puzzling out my experience and attempting to understand what had happened, how I felt, and to mold the person I wanted to become.

The other thing that has prompted me to think about diaries is the state of my own since last spring, when I effectively retired.  Somehow it seemed to devolve into a record of things done:  chapters finished, poems started, books read.  Or else it was a record of Sheba's medical treatment and of all the things I did to try to change her inclination to retreat and hide.  In the first instance, I think I was constructing the new narrative, creating the momentum that would allow me to honestly say "I retired to write (and see, I'm doing it)."  In the second case, after Sheba's death and the ocean of guilt that came with it because we could not figure out what was wrong with her, it was a reality check.  I had tried everything.  I had spent evenings reading Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet sitting on the stairs because that was the only place in the house where she felt safe and comfortable; only there would she climb into my lap.  Sometimes, I have concluded, a keeping a record is enough. 

I'm finding this is true of Virginia Woolf's 1897 diary.  People who are passionate about Woolf sometimes tend to focus on her putative sexual abuse by her step-brother or on  her struggles with mental health. Others tend to take too seriously Leonard Woolf's statement that she was  “the least political animal that has lived.”  In too many cases, that focus has failed to see that she was, above all, an historical and political thinker, one whose thought was profoundly grounded in the reading her father encouraged her to undertake in her teens.  But when you read these relatively brief daily records of her shopping and her reading, you not only find out a great deal about what young women wanted in the late nineteenth-century, but also what she read.  When she was given an allowance from her father to buy her own clothing, she was ecstatic:  "We should buy out of this all our clothes etc; think of the joy of making a pair of boots last a month longer and buying for ourselves books at a 2nd hand bookstall!" (Tuesday, 30 March, 1897--and no, that isn't an obligatory FB exclamation mark).  Books of historical reflection filled her days when she was 15, Carlyle followed by Macauley followed by Froude.  So that when she writes, in 1923 “I want to give life & death, sanity & insanity; I want to criticise the social system, & show it at work, at its most intense," she knows what she's talking about.  Sometimes keeping a record reveals more than the writer anticipates.

But my own experience with my diary this year has revealed something else.  I'm too old to be egotistical any longer, to enjoy egotism's sublime agonies and disappointments, to believe that I'm writing deathless prose about experiences no one else has ever had.  But I have found that my commitment to writing fairly regularly in my diary gives me two things.  First, I am keeping an historical record, inadvertently or not, and I try to use my System 2 time with my diary to understand the historical moment I'm living through.  Perhaps my struggles will help make sense of someone else's.  But second, my diary keeping implicitly reflects the fact that my modest life is important, that it is imbued with the kind of dignity that belongs to almost anyone, certainly those who try to think their way through their days.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Reading like a writer 3


Sunday afternoon, I attended a RSO chamber concert at Government house which began with a wonderful piece for flute, cello, and piano called "Cothurnus" by Canadian composer Alice Ho.  Simon Fryer, who frequently offers insight into the music, told us that "cothurnus" refers to the shoes worn by Greek Tragedians, and compared the emotional points of a drama to the structure of Ho's music.  "It doesn't so much develop as unfold," he told us, and indeed, I experienced the music as a kind of an emotional/psychological soundscape, a series of moods or reactions that unfolded.

But Fryer's words rattled around in my brain at around 4 a.m. Monday morning when, unable to sleep, I finished reading Colm Toibin's Nora Webster, which I began as soon as I finished Murakami's Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage.  The novels have much in common:  both begin, at least chronologically, with a trauma.  Tsukuru is shunned by his close adolescent friends while Nora has to see her husband through an incredibly painful death and then take over raising her four children alone.  (The book takes place in Ireland in the Sixties, when pain medication was withheld, even from a terminal patient, so that he or she wouldn't get addicted.  Fortunately, we know better now.)  Yet I can't help feeling that Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki develops while Nora Webster unfolds.  I may be splitting hairs, and if you have any insight, please help me out here.  Because I'm trying to figure out something about "plotting":  how sometimes a writer's creative vision requires a very purposeful structure, while other creative projects have more space in which to unfold. 

Maybe it would help to consider "development" vs. "unfolding" in musical terms first.  All art, Aristotle tells us, strives for unity.  In the 21st century, this is perhaps arguable, but let's go with it.  A narrative draws unity quite naturally out of a sequence of events that might be shaped by a beginning, middle, and end; or that might simply be related chronologically or causally.  Music, being abstract, has no meaning as narrative, so composers often draw unity out of repetition, or repetition plus variation, or repetition plus contrast.  I remember seeing a film of Leonard Bernstein when I was in high school where Bernstein explains the sonata-allegro form, a basic structure for European and North America symphonies, piano concertos, and chamber music.  Sitting at a grand piano, he sings--well, he kind of sings--a Beatles song.  Eight bars of tune.  Repeat those eight bars of tune.  Insert a contrasting tune and then wind it all up with the initial eight bars, repetition optional.  I think the song was "And I love her," and as I read the lyrics just now and hummed to myself, I thought "yup, that would do it."

Liszt, that bad boy of nineteenth-century music, introduced another way of structuring music that would come to be called "through composed."  Start a tune, take it as far as you can until you get bored or it peters out, and then start something new.  I'm not a Liszt fan, so I'd say that this was like a lot of his other innovations:  more effective in someone else's hands.  Liszt simply unfolds, and  you have to be interested enough to simply wander on with it.

Here's where my possible hair-splitting begins.  It seems to me that the plot of Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki develops.  Murakami achieves this a couple of ways.  Sixteen years after his shunning, Tsukuru's current girlfriend wants him to visit the friends who shunned him and to learn what happened.  Tsukuru has constructed a purposeful life for himself as someone who sensitively designs railway and subway stations in Tokyo, attempting to make the traveler's experience as simple and pleasant as possible, even in stations that see thousands of passengers a day.  He's created kluges around his wound, though he still feels that there is clearly something profoundly wrong with him that he himself can't see--a belief that has led him to have a series of rather non-committal relationships so that he's not deeply wounded when they end.  His new girlfriend, Sara, won't settle for this and thinks he needs to meet his past head on.  

This element of the novel is so human:  I doubt there are many of us without such a wound that only hurts sometimes, but that reminds us that we're really deeply flawed and only lucky sometimes that people don't see this.  Also human is the "reflection" that Tsukuru sees in his friends' eyes:  they tell him what he was like for them, how they loved him, how their mothers were his biggest fans because he was always polite and carefully dressed, how he gave them all a kind of ballast.  With each visit to a friend, the reader's knowledge of Tsukuru becomes deeper, along with Tsukuru's vision of himself.  And each visit is a kind of repetition, a kind of revisiting of the past.  

Murakami underlines this impression of return/repetition through motifs and tropes that come back again and again, sometimes developing.  Several times, Tsukuru describes his friends' rejection of him (which was not his fault, as we learn, but I'm not going to spoil the plot); he likens it to being thrown overboard into a dark, cold ocean.  A piece of music played by one of his friends--Liszt's "Le mal du pays" from his "Years of Pilgrimage Suite"--comes back again and again, and each time Tsukuru hears it, he is both taken back to his past but also reminded of his present "groundless sadness."  Besides thinking of himself as a "colorless" member of this group, he also thinks of himself as an empty vessel, telling the first friend he visits "I've always seen myself as an empty person, lacking color and identity.  Maybe that was my role in the group.  To be empty" (179).  But Murakami skillfully shifts our reading of the "empty vessel," so that toward the end of the novel, in the hands, as it were, of a young friend who had loved him deeply and who has become a potter, the concept of "empty vessel" changes significantly.  Repetition plus variation and contrast:  this novel develops.

Whereas Nora Webster, an equally compelling read, seems to unfold.  Nora's task is to find her way beyond her grief and to face a series of practical difficulties, such as the fact that she hadn't held a job in years.  Although memories of her husband's death come back constantly, her basic narrative task is to move beyond them.  Whereas Murakami's novel feels so carefully built (I only hinted at the many tropes and motifs that come back again and again)--appropriate for a novel about a character whose name means "maker,"--Toibin's skill is to depict Nora's growth through the absolutely everyday, often accidental events or through the pressing decisions she must make about her children..  The time she tells the office manager to get off her back.  The evening when she visits friends she's made in a musical club to listen to records.  Redecorating the back room and the front room, and painting a ceiling.  Figuring out how to help her oldest boy adjust to public school, to keep his long-term good in mind while finding a way to make the immediate disorientation bearable.  She's making it up as she goes along.  Here, perhaps, that powerful human project is grieving.  Toibin and Nora suggest it isn't really a series of purposeful, nameable stages, but that it's putting one foot in front of another until you look back and find that much has changed, though not your love or longing for the person who is gone.  And just as this project simply unfolds--you could take any number of routes through a life swamped by grief--so does the novel.  Each chapter feels absolutely casual, as if it's simply a "slice" of Nora's life; yet each chapter is a purposeful record of the everyday process of grieving and living.

"Ah," you are thinking about now, "she's still reading aesthetics."  Well, not at this moment, though I'm hoping that tomorrow I finish my chapter on Mrs Dalloway.  But what I admire about these two novels is that they are so quiet, like most of our lives.  The don't have that classic opening that I might describe as "Something Terrible Has Happened:  Whaddaya Gonna Do?"  At the same time, their structures are perfect for the human projects each novel envisions for the eponymous character.

And here is where I come round to Mrs Dalloway.  What good is the use of such beautiful structures?  Does the ordinary reader--the reader who simply reads out of a love of reading, not the reader who also loves reading but who is trying to learn how to write--notice these structures on a conscious level?  On a subliminal level?  Does this reader simply sense the rightness of the shape, of the language, of the rhythm of each sentence?  Does the author earn her or his sense of authority in the reader's eyes by creating something that's shapely, integral, appropriate to the task?


I have the sense that when we respond to the shaping, the making of a novel, we are simply aware of its rightness, its beauty.  "Wow!  That chapter was all about redecorating and painting ceilings.  But painting a ceiling put Nora in a lot of pain, and her doctor kind of went overboard with the pain medication, so Nora's sisters and aunt came in to help, and she overheard them talking about her and told them so--which healed a lot of rifts.  Beautiful!"  And I suspect that our sense of the novel's beauty--a beauty that goes beyond the people and events the novel describes and the wisdom and compassion the author brings to their treatment--stays with us like a beautiful moment in our own lives.

Monday, February 16, 2015

All that art can do: images of home and of the other

I've been reading aesthetics again.  I know, I know, it's a bad habit.  But I'm working on the Woolf book, on what I call an "interlude" that looks at how the poetics of the novel were thought about between the writing of Jacob's Room and Mrs Dalloway.  As Virginia Woolf and Percy Lubbock were locked in a battle about how the novel worked, they found themselves faced with two difficulties.  First, until Henry James wrote "The Art of Fiction" in 1884, not much thought had been given to the very notion that the novel had various ways of working.  A novel was...a novel.  Second, when you are suddenly made self-conscious about something (your own identity, for example), it is challenging to find language for something you've never seen or thought of before as having qualities that aren't obvious.  I wanted to give my readers--all of whom will be even more self-conscious about the novel than Woolf was, having lived through the postmodern crisis of literature--a sense of what this lack of words was like.  

So I turned to Roger Fry, the painter and art historian who was also a mentor to Woolf.  Fortunately, J.B. Bullen has put together a selection of materials written by Fry and other artists and critics during the period between the first and second Post-Impressionist exhibitions Fry organized at the Grafton Galleries in 1910 and 1912.  These two exhibitions were a watershed for British art and shocked Britons because the art Fry hung with such enthusiasm and glee didn't try to replicate the world as exactly as the painter's craft would allow it to do.  In England, until this exhibition, the quality of a painting was determined by the artist's skill at representation.  What, then, were they to make of Cezanne, Picasso, Matisse, and Kandinsky?  In about eight essays written for magazines over these three years, Roger Fry struggled to find the words that will describe what he loves and admires about the work of the continental Modernist painters.

Thinking about Woolf's struggle to understand "the art of the novel," and Fry's enthusiasm for Post-Impressionism and abstraction lead me to think about all the things art can do, and all the things we hope and expect that art will do.  On the back of one of those cards you find in Walrus urging you to subscribe (which I already do), I made a partial list, at the top of which was "moves us to joy or tears."  If art does nothing else, its capacity to draw a connection between the human experience and powerful feeling, so that our own emotions get little dress rehearsals or wake-up calls from time to time, is justification enough for its existence.  Next on my list was "it surprises us."  It keeps hopeful playfulness alive in the world; its inventiveness is a corollary for every kind of innovation and creation--the very habits of mind we need for solving practical and social problems   Then "world/critique."  Art offers us a critique of the world as it is, or offers us a perspective on our world seen from elsewhere.  It offers us utopias and dystopias.  It offers us choice; it makes promises; it foresees disasters.

But then, because I had recently been to the Wilf Perreault exhibition at the MacKenzie Art Gallery, I'd thought about how art reflects on home, how it bring home into focus, how it might give us a surprising, unexpected view of home, helping us to see again what we take for granted.  Such art is sometimes simply a prompt to engage with the visual world that surrounds us daily and that we take for granted.  As it happens, I went to this exhibition three times, each time with someone different.  This was not simply because Perreault's work is realistic and comforting, which it is, though I'm equally at home in Mark Rothko's abstraction.  I think my motive was almost anthropological:  what did Bill, Katherine, and Veronica think of the work?  Would the conversations around me change, or would they be much the same as they were the last time?

During my three visits, however, I took part in variations on the same two-part conversation--one which I took part in with  my companion and also overheard taking place all over the rooms.  First, there's the response to Perreault's painstaking technique, his affection for everything he finds in his beloved back lanes, from an empty potato chip package to a dandelion, from trees just changing colour to the complex reflections in the puddles.  His love of the community and city where he lives is translated into a technique that expresses his sense of wonder and evokes it in us.  The second part of the conversation involved people's attempts to figure out where the paintings are "taken" from, to identify the neighbourhood, the lane, the upstairs window that provides the perspective.  (In many of these, the Cathedral helps to orient you.)  Veronica, rather in love with her iPhone and with Google Maps and Google Earth, managed to help us to locate the vantage point of a couple of paintings that I had thought that were compilations.  But she was not the only one who tried to guess the street or the lane.  It's clear that we take delight in seeing ourselves, our communities, our very own land- or city-scapes on gallery walls.  Besides urging us to look more closely, the painter's attention to the details of our very own worlds--and seeing them on gallery walls--gives our lives a kind of dignity.

Not every artist or work of art does everything we need art to do.  That's part of the mystery and the wonder of art--that we can recognize that vastly different things  nevertheless share something integral.  So my sense that art (as a practice, not as individual works) fails us if it only functions as a kind of appreciative, focusing mirror should not be taken as a criticism of Perreault.  Rather, it comes out of reading the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, who argues so convincingly that one of our human tasks--our ethical tasks, though he will not use that word--is to understand "the other."  Levinas's definition of the other does not emphasize the viewer's unfamiliarity with another individual's ethnicity or history.  As a phenomenologist, he begins with his own experience being in a concentration camp during World War II, and concludes that there were two ways of being, two choices people could make:  for totality or transcendence.  The war taught him too well what totality was like:  during times of war each individual is part of the State's war effort, and little more:  a cog in a wheel, a means to an end.  I think we can see some element of totality in our commitment of consumerism or even our electronic devices:  we are part of someone else's plan for our life.  We also create totality in those moments when we see other people in our world primarily as means to an end, not as individuals whom we need to understand on their own terms.

For Levinas, the other is not someone of a different gender or ethnicity, but simply someone whose gesture or facial expression or words of greeting attempt to open a conversation about what we value and how we live.  Our curiosity about the other, our attempts to keep the conversation going, to hear the other's words move us toward transcendence.  Quite simply, the experience makes our world larger, richer, more complex.  

Some art effects this for us, or provides a dress rehearsal for moments when we have the chance to partake in such a conversation.  On Friday, I was in Saskatoon for the Saskatchewan Book Awards Shortlist Announcement, and had a wonderful chance to talk with writers and publishers about their experiences writing and publishing.  But before I left town, I stopped in at McNally Robinson and bought Haruki Murakami's new novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage.  I finished it this afternoon and promise that I will write about it more fully once I have re-read it.  In some ways, Murakami provides the conventional experience of the other.  Tsukuru is Japanese, male, an engineer who designs train stations.  Yet in some ways, he is very much like each one of us, insofar as he comes to recognize that his life is a pilgrimage, a process of wandering, being lost, discovering, finding once again what is important.  What is different is how he negotiates the challenges of his own particular life, and what his challenges tell me about my own.  I suppose that I'm saying that as I read this novel I was having a Levinasian conversation with Tsukuru and Murakami, and that my world is made, in some oddly ethical way, more transcendent for the experience.

We ask art to do a lot for us:  prompt us to feel, keep inventiveness and play alive, provide a space of critique, reflect our homes and our lives while giving us access to lives and experiences that are entirely different.  Virginia Woolf believed that readers, viewers, and audiences kept art alive and lively by making demands that somehow became part of the air the alert artist breathed,  making art better.  So it's important for us not to stop expecting art to play a crucial role in our private lives and in the wider culture:  those expectations make a difference.


Thursday, January 29, 2015

Fiction and Perspective



Walter Besant (1836-1901), British teacher, man of letters, and historian, started it with a little piece called "The Art of the Novel" that he first delivered as a lecture to the Royal Society and then had published by Chatto and Windus in the spring of 1884.  By September,  Henry James, disagreeing with Besant, whose works were as earthy and critical of society as James's were etherial, returned the serve with his own "Art of the Novel." The argument they began would go on for at least another forty years as both writers and readers wondered to what extent the novel needed to be, in James's words, "a representation of life" and to what extent artfulness, or form, compromised the energy and the truthfulness of novels.  The argument basically goes back to Socrates and Aristotle; Socrates argues that works of art were merely representations of shadows while Aristotle “goes to considerable lengths to differentiate the art object from the reality it imitates, and this almost entirely on account of aesthetic design....[I]t is design itself that distinguishes art from life" (Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry 1043).  James thought the point of the novel was representation but also felt that a writer who hadn't bothered to find the right form for the story he was going to tell wasn't really a novelist.

In his Prefaces for his novels, James said more that was astute about the novel than I can quote here, but it is easy to say that one of his major contributions to the very idea that the novel was an art and not a kind of creative, glorified journalism and social criticism, is his thoughts about point of view.  Michael Schmidt, in his voluminous (nearly 1200 pages) and chatty The Novel:  A Biography observes that "other novelists have 'intermittently' been aware of [point of view];  but James formulates it by asking 'Who saw this thing I am going to tell about?  By whom do I mean that it shall be reported?  It seems as though such a question must precede any study of the subject chosen, since the subject is conditioned by the answer [to those questions]'" (497).

In the late 1920s, E.M. Forster and Virginia Woolf take up this conversation about the novel and its art partly in their reviews of one another's work.  But their most sustained argument about the art of the novel can be seen in Forster's well-known Aspects of the Novel and Woolf's less-well-known Phases of Fiction.  You will remember that someone in the recesses of your past taught you about flat and round characters.  Or perhaps they reminded you (particularly if you are a creative writer) that "the queen died and then the king died" is simply a chronology:  if you want a plot, you need to make clear that "the queen died and then the king died of grief."  This all comes from Forster's popular set of Clark Lectures delivered in 1927 at Trinity College Cambridge that would become Aspects of the Novel.  I've always found this a curious and inconsistent book , partly because like other writers in the twenties, Forster is trying to articulate a self-conscious poetics of the novel, even though very little ground work has been laid in the forty years since the quarrel between Besant and James.  What interests me here is that Forster assumes, without questioning his assumption, that the kind of realistic, socially-engaged novels that he wrote and read are the gold standard, and that anything that deviates from that either incorporates too much art or fails to understand the novel's role in its culture and society.

In Phases of Fiction, Woolf comes at the novel from an entirely different direction.  Woolf was more widely read than Forster: in the collection of Forster's letters at Trinity, there's a note in Forster's hand asking  Woolf for help with a list of books to read for Aspects of the Novel.  Curiously, this letter never made its way into the volume of Forster's selected letters.  I can imagine Woolf standing in front of her bookshelves, with a pencil and paper and making the list of novels for Morgan. But I suspect that while she stood there, something else occurred to her:  that she could classify the kinds of novels she found there  and that this might tell us more about the poetics of the novel than the assumption that all novels are, at bottom, the same.  

She makes two important opening claims that few would argue with before she flies off in unpredictable directions.  First, that one of the things that writers and readers share is a desire to create. Second, that we have appetites for fiction that vary from time to time.  I once had an aunt who would take me off my mother's hands for a couple of weeks at a time and who had what I thought was a novel approach to an afternoon snack:  did I want something sweet or salty?  I had no idea that someone understood those funny urges and desires that came on about 3 in the afternoon.  Virginia Woolf is that aunt, except she understands that as our appetites for one kind of fiction become sated, we seek out something quite different for our next book.  Woolf assumes realist fiction is a beginning:  "Of these appetites, perhaps, the simplest is the desire to believe wholly and entirely in something which is fictitious" (Essays V, 41-42).  But once we've had our fill of Trollope or Jane Urquhart, we might have a hankering for a Bronte or Mrs. Radcliffe.  After feasting on emotions for a fortnight, we might want a little comedy--say some over-the-top Dickens.  After Dickens, we might want a little Tolkien or Guy Gavriel Key.  After some satirical Ian McEwan, we long for some poetic Anne Michaels.  I guess the metaphor is of library as eternal buffet:  do you want something sweet, salty, tangy, hot?


The other contribution Woolf makes to our understanding of fiction is that many personal and generic differences are caused by writers' different perspectives:  the bitterness of the satirists, the melancholia of the Brontes, the otherworldliness of Tolkien that is poised on the point of romance and disaster. Perhaps our current taste for so much genre fiction is a result of a more impatient search for the perspective that will speak to our experience and condition.  Woolf was an avid photographer, and so knew firsthand what a difference in framing and perspective could make to a photograph.

As a reader, I've had just such a Woolfian experience in the last couple of weeks.  I finally finished Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle:  A Death in the Family, a work that has been aptly described as an "autobiographical novel," given that it's clearly an autobiography but that Knausgaard remembers details like the time he was seven and closed the car door before having a fight with his father.   As I read Knausgaard, I contemplated the thoughts of a commentator in The Globe and Mail who said he'd learned so much about psychology by reading My Struggle.  Well, yes, I certainly did learn about the psychology of the young Scandinavian male.  Knaussgaard's M.O. is to describe scenes and events in rich detail, and then perhaps to spend as many pages considering what he felt and thought at the time.  One effect of this practice is to query the banality of so much that makes up our lives:  to realize that if we are paying attention, little is really banal or everyday.  

Another effect of the encyclopedically-described scenes and the almost obsessive reflection on them is to give the reader access to another consciousness, a vulnerable, barely-formed consciousness, completely unlike the reader's own.  If I will ever understand what it is like to be an adolescent male in the thick of the inevitable identity crisis, it will be because Knausgaard helped me to do so. Knausgaard is willing to let us be witnesses as a teenager carefully, self-consciously dresses up for a New Year's party he hopes to crash.  He allows us to see the lengths to which this young man will go to save his plastic bags of illegal liquor.  He brings us right to the New Year's fireworks in the town square and lets us stand beside him while one of the most popular girls in school tells him he can't crash her party--in spite of his white shirt, his great haircut, his membership in a rock band, and his clanking bottles of beer.  Reading My Struggle was nearly voyeuristic, and just as compelling as I imagine voyeurism can be.  I read it down in great draughts, like the young Knausgaard's illegal beer.

But Knausgaard's perspective is extraordinarily limited:  it is relentlessly turned inward, and as a result, he is worryingly incurious about the people around him. When he's in his late teens, his dad announces that he and his mother are separating.  'Where will I live?' is his only response.  Not 'why?'  Not even 'how could you fuck up my life like this?'  Just 'where do I put my toothbrush.'  When his father drinks himself to death, locking himself in his mother's house with a broken leg that he won't get medical help for, Knausgaard never wonders why, never tries to understand his father's motives or experience.  It's a pain in the ass to clean the house up after him, but he's immensely relieved when he sees his father's body for the second time.  His father had often been critical almost to the point of abuse. (Almost?  I think he was abusive, but my definition might be different from others', perhaps because my expectations of civility in relationships are quite high.) So when Knausgaard arrives at the recognition that his father is now a thing, like the table he's lying on, the 700-plus page volume can end.    

While I found the My Struggle compelling, I also found it made me claustrophobic, perhaps because I was in a single mind for the whole experience.  This isn't necessary for first-person narrators; they can be curious about others and spend as much time reflecting, say, on relationships as they spend reflecting on their own sense of inadequacy.  They could attempt to read the desires of others with as much care as they give to their own desires.

Still in the Scandinavian woods, I turned to Isak Dinesen's collection Anecdotes of Destiny, immediately reading her incomparable "Babette's Feast" twice.  I finished the story late one night, grinned at the artistry, and then started again at the beginning.  The premise is simple:  a French woman who had been a communard and whose husband and son had been shot on the barricades, needs to get out of the country and is sent by a friend to the home of two women who are the beautiful daughters of a man who began a very ascetic religious sect in Norway.  They take her on as a cook, though since she was the chef of the Cafe Anglaise--the most famous restaurant in Paris--the kind of basic fare that these two women want her to cook is depressing; but they have given her safety, so cook she does.  She manages their lives wonderfully, budgeting so that they have even more food to give to the poor.  But twelve years after she arrives, she wins a lottery of 10,000 francs.  They expect her to leave, but what she really wants to do is to cook the dinner marking the 100th birthday of their father for Martine and Philippa and the other members of the Dean's little community, who have become querulous of late.  

The asceticism of the sect leads them to promise one another that they will taste nothing--not the turtle soup, not the Veuve Cliquot 1860, not the quail.  Yet something mysterious happens:  they become kind to one another, they forget past slights and resentments, they even kindle a few dying embers.  Even the simple plot of the story brings a smile to one's face, as if Babette is a precursor of Clarissa Dalloway, who realizes that it's a gift to bring people together and give them some pleasure.

But two things make this reading ultimately unsatisfying.  First, Dinesen has an entirely different perspective on her characters and knows the inward desires of even the bit players, like a now famous French general who once loved Martine or the opera singer who longed for the love of Philippa.  But she tells us nothing of Babette, except what she does.  Babette is the mystery at the core of the story; we only partially understand her when she tells the sisters at the end that she made the meal as evidence that she is a great artist, and great artists need to make their art.  The second thing is that it is hard to decide on the story's values.  We know those of the sect.  We know the opera singer desires fame and seals his fate when he tells the simple Philippa that she too will be famous when he takes her to France.  (She refuses to leave Norway with him, of course.  Earthly fame is not what she seeks.)  We know that the general as a young man desires the goodness and simplicity of Martine, but when he cannot have it, marries a woman who is a member of the French Court, has great success as a soldier, but is finally unhappy.  Dinesen sets up binaries:  earthly/heavenly, now/later; military and social/spiritual.  But we need to be astute readers to discern how well these values have worked for the individuals.  Moreover, we need to realize that the art of Babette's cooking finally erases the distinction between the bodily and the spiritual. We are given numerous perspectives and are encouraged to see how they work within the world of the story.

I can't say whether My Struggle or "Babette's Feast" is better:  their engagements with the world and with the reader are profoundly, incomparably different.  But Woolf's concern for perspective gives me a way of thinking about what I value and what makes me a little crazy.  And who knows, after another hundred pages of Dinesen's almost oracular voice, I may need something very down to earth, like Michael Crummey's Sweetland

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The truth in life writing


I can't honestly contribute to the world-wide conversation we are having about the murder of the journalists, artists, and editors at Charlie Hebdo or say anything that hasn't already been said by the millions who marched in defense of free speech.  Except to say that the societies that are culturally rich, societies that create policies that seek inclusion and that strive to recognize the rights and gifts of everyone are societies where meaningful conversations are encouraged and allowed.  Only when we can say everything to one another, only when we can question everything, only when we feel that the wildest idea might have some merit, only where critique of the status quo is not silenced, can such societies grow and thrive.  Such conversations exempt only hate speech, because hate speech is not part of a conversation but an edict, an absolute position that the holder has no intention of examining or changing.

Beyond those words which might come from anyone defending free speech, I can only add something to one of the quieter corners of our human right to say what we need to say:  that when life writers make it their task to be as honest as they can be about the way their lives intersect with the world and ideas they are exploring, the reader becomes more human. This fall, I read three books of partly autobiographical essays with student and friend, Sonia Stanger:  Lena Dunham's Not That Kind of Girl, Leslie Jamison's The Empathy Exams, and Rebecca Solnit's The Faraway Nearby.  In the new year, I downloaded Karl Ove Knausgaard's idiosyncratic and popular My Struggle:  A Death in the Family to my iPad, finding myself as completely engaged as the other million readers seem to have been.  Knausgaard gives me a place to begin my thoughts about the effects of honesty in life writing.  In his early pages, he talks about deciding not to drink because when he does, he gives away too much of himself.  "I do not want anyone to get close to me, I do not want anyone to see me, and this is the way things have developed:  no one gets close and no one sees me.  This is what must have engraved itself in my face, this is what must have made it so stiff and mask-like and almost impossible to associate with myself whenever I happen to catch a glimpse of it in a shop window." 

Without any explanation, Knausgaard suddenly shifts to a description of a late Rembrandt self-portrait:  "All the facial detail is visible; all the traces life has left there are to be seen.  The face is furrowed, wrinkled, sagging, ravaged by time.  But the eyes are bright and, if not young, they somehow transcend the time that otherwise marks the face.  It is as though someone else is looking at us, from somewhere inside the face, where everything is different.  One can hardly be closer to another human soul."  Several things make this self-portrait different for Knausgaard:  one is that it was painted the year Rembrandt died.  But the other is that Rembrandt creates what I will call "another economy" in the Western philosophical penchant for privileging sight among all our senses, and for making the ability to see a source of power.  Knausgaard writes  "The difference between this painting and the others the late Rembrandt painted is the difference between seeing and being seen.  That is, in this picture he sees himself while also being seen."  Rembrandt occupies two positions in this painting.  As the painter, he has the power to see himself and the craftsmanship to represent what he sees.  But he is also making himself vulnerable, an object of the viewer's gaze, complete with a face that is "furrowed, wrinkled, sagging, ravaged by time."

The suddenness with which Knausgaard introduces this image tells me that Rembrandt's self-portrait is, in a way, the model for his autobiographical undertaking.  Unlike the social Knausgaard who has stopped drinking to keep people from knowing him more fully, the autobiographer Knausgaard, the writer who is driven to undertake a project that will produce 6 sizable volumes, is driven to be seen.  And see him we do.  He tells us about discovering that when his "dick" is erect, it is crooked and ugly:  he will never achieve the adolescent boy's goal in life:  to have sex as soon and as often as possible.  We learn about his dream to be a rock musician, which is the icon for the way he actually sees himself, which would represent his true self to the world; but at the same time, we are privy to his relentless practicing that produces nothing but mechanical sounds.  Clearly, his brain does not "speak music."  We follow his ambivalent desire to hang out with popular cliques, even while he mocks their popularity and refuses to conform in ways that could make him equally popular.  The effect of Knausgaard's willingness to be so honest and so vulnerable is twofold.  The honesty and vividness with which he writes tends, I suspect, to provoke the reader's memories of similar fears, attitudes, and embarrassments.  And once we have done that, almost sharing them with the Knausgaard that inhabits the page, we are more human.  We are a witness to his struggle, not a judging witness, but one that finds our own failures and weaknesses mirrored within the world he creates.

I know that Lena Dunham's Not that Kind of Girl (we're going from the sublime to the ridiculous here) has been ridiculed for being full of TMI.  The scare quotes around the word "learned" in the subtitle certainly bode ill.  And I seriously wanted to sit down and have a conversation with her about her pride in her inability to cope or function without melting down. I also wanted to suggest that if she was going to give the reader too much information, she could at least give us some analysis of that information, which she is clearly capable of.  (This is how Knausgaard's equally honest description of his teenage years differs from Dunham's:  it comes with implicit, if not explicit examination and analysis.)  I don't really need her diet plans.  But I imagine that her examination of a drugged night that ended in unprotected sex that was "terribly aggressive" resonates (with variations) with many women:  "I feel like there are fifty ways it's my fault.  I fantasized.  I took the big pill and the small pill, stuffed myself with substances to make being out in the world with people my own age a bit easier.  To lessen the space between me and everyone else.  I was hungry to be seen.  But I also know that at no moment did I consent to being handled that way.  I never gave him permission to be rough, to stick himself inside me without a barrier between us.  I never gave him permission.  In my deepest self I know this, and the knowledge has kept me from sinking."  Weirdly like Knausgaard, Dunham shares her vulnerability, her discomfort with social occasions she also craves, and her sane ability to draw a line--"I never gave him permission"--where there is no sand to mark it.

Leslie Jamison's award-winning and best-selling The Empathy Exams is a series of essays, some of them originally published elsewhere, that circle around the topic of empathy and some of empathy's cousins, like sympathy and understanding, or the distinction between true feeling and sentiment.  In the opening essay, she earns her street cred for writing about this topic:  as a poor creative writing student, she worked as a medical actor, someone who memorized the symptoms given them in a case study, but who wasn't particularly forthcoming with the young doctors-in-training.  After meeting with the student doctor, the actors graded them on their detective skills and on their empathy.  After playing these roles and having conversations with other actors, Jamison seems to have a clear line on empathy:  "Empathy isn't just remembering to say that must really be hard--it's figuring out how to bring difficulty into the light so it can be seen at all.  Empathy isn't just listening, it's asking the questions whose answers need to be listened to.  Empathy requires inquiry as much as imagination.  Empathy requires knowing you know nothing....Empathy comes from the Greek empatheia--em (into) and pathos (feeling)--a penetration, a kind of travel.  It suggests you enter another person's pain as you'd enter another country, through immigration and customs, border crossing by way of query:  What grows where you are?  What are the laws?  What animals graze there?"

One of the principles of creative nonfiction is that the writer has two powerful tools:  his or her voice,  which creates and embodies the idiosyncratic and hopefully eye-catching persona, and her or his experience, which lends a note of authenticity.  Jamison makes full use of these, juxtaposing her work as a medical actor with her own "case studies" of her abortion and heart surgery that failed to fix her irregular heartbeat.  But it was her more subtle use of her presence in the world she was writing about that I found most skillful.  In a brief piece called "Indigenous to the Hood," she takes part in a "gang tour," which essentially involves a busload of tourists being driven around by former gang members (one hopes) to the neighbourhood that holds their stories.  As Jamison astutely puts it, "They've turned their experiences into stories for travelers.  They are curators and exhibits at once" (84).  While she knows that the people who take such tours "want the tour to give you back another version of yourself, you and everyone:  a more enlightened human" (89), she is rightly skeptical of such a project.  Does she really need to get on this bus to wax philosophical about what Susan Sontag and scholar Graham Huggen have to say about our search to make "exotic" experiences part of our world view, or could she simply have written this straight?  How many of us have similarly gone on a vacation, seeking an "authentic Italian/Hawaiian/Chinese experience," perhaps knowing we can't have it yet bamboozling ourselves into believing that we captured a small slice of it?  By representing her experience as a tourist, her inner tourist meets ours; her flawed but hopeful humanity bumps up right against ours in the inevitable line that always begins and ends our tourist experiences. Briefly, we make eye contact with the writer, admitting that yes, the line is very slow today.

My last example is Rebecca Solnit's The Faraway Nearby, a phrase she borrows from the letters of Georgia O'Keefe.  Of these three books of essays, hers is the most elegant, polished, thoughtful, thought-provoking:  just read it.  I could wax lyrical about the way she's structured essays that are independent into a book that has an integral shape and project; I could admire her poetic use of language or the wide reading that informs her thought.  But let me simply use a brief moment where her task as a daughter is our task as a reader.  Her relationship with her mother had been very difficult; we're given enough evidence to fully believe that.  But when it was clear her mother had Alzheimer's, she thinks of all the ways her mother undoubtedly gave care--giving baths, doing laundry, making meals--if not love.  She writes "It was in honor of that unremembered past that I took care of her, that and principle and compassion and solidarity with my brothers.  How could I not?"  If this sounds a bit clinical, a bit as if she's preparing for a polar expedition, it is, thought Solnit examines her own behaviour:  "I was distant.  I studied her, I pondered her.  My survival depended on mapping her landscape and finding my routes out of it.  We are all the heroes of our own stories, and one of the arts of perspective is to see yourself small on the stage of another's story, to see the vast expanse of the world that is not about you, and to see your power, to make your life, to make others, or break them, to tell stories rather than be told by them" (29).

Princeton philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah writes in his book Cosmopolitanism:  Ethics in a World of Strangers, that if we want to connect ethically with people whose experience and attitudes are profoundly different from ours, we need to share stories.  But as all these writers illustrate, one way or another--literally or by indirection--we also need to see and be seen.  We need, as Solnit suggests, the stories of others as a reminder of many things:  of the fact that we are not always the centre of the universe, and of the fact that complex circumstances place people in universes quite different from ours, universes that we need to be so attentive to that we can at least attempt to map them.  But in the face of others' honesty, we need to be seen, to put ourselves in the position of the object of the gaze--even if it's only our own gaze.  These writers' vulnerability demands that we also be vulnerable, even if only to our stronger, better, wiser selves.  That's how we become more human.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Toward the Solstice: A Season of Light


One evening in late November, I found myself outside in the still air, shoveling snow, and thinking of how my mother used to say that December was "a season of light." 

Christmas was important to my mother, and she worked very hard--and usually cheerfully--to make the season beautiful.  Preparations began in late November, when (without a calculator) she did the tax roll for Moorland Township, which involved sharpening countless pencils to do numerous calculations, all of which were written in an enormous columned book about two feet square.  Then the calculations were checked and written in fountain pen.  She did this in the evening at the kitchen table, while Karen and I washed dishes, and she made the astronomical sum of $50.  This was when gas was usually less than 25 cents a gallon, so $50 to spend on Christmas presents did seem like untold riches. 

Then the baking began.  Spritz cookies forced through the cookie press, silver shot pressed into the flowery shapes before baking.  Swedish Christmas cookies, which contained egg yolks that had been cooked in simmering water and forced through a sieve.  Divinity.  Fudge. Penuche.  Home-made mincemeat.  Christmas cake that lived in the cold of the old coal chute.  A couple of times a week, Mother would get up on a chair in the basement to take it down and give it another spoonful of brandy. The Swedish Christmas cookies were frosted, sprinkled with coloured sugar or decorated with silver shot.  Some years the airy clouds of divinity were coloured pink or green; other years she added peppermint oil grown on her brother's farm to the pure sweetness.  Divinity is essentially beaten egg whites to which you add a sugar syrup that has reached the soft ball stage.  It's just sweetness; frankly, I've never seen the point, but my mother made divine, creamy divinity.  Fudge seemed trickier:  you had to catch it at just the right temperature and beat the hell out of it so that it wasn't grainy.  Penuche--essentially fudge made with brown sugar and without chocolate--she made only for herself.  She deserved it.

But light?  Michigan in winter easily gets an hour more daylight than Saskatchewan, but winter there was often cloudy, the streets full of grey slush. I haven't thought of this saying of hers for years, but as I threw the airy snow from the walkways, I thought it made some sense to try to understand what she meant.  In the silent evening air,  casting the glittering snow around me, I wondered if "light" might be metaphorical.  The snow, after all, was light:  insubstantial and glittering, it flew into the air catching every scintilla of light around it.  

I found myself instead thinking of the ways I try to create light as we move toward the solstice.  On foggy days, I admire the way the headlights of cars driving through Wascana Park flare through the fog into the darkness.  Like everyone else, I take pictures of hoarfrost or snow that has fallen so gently it catches on the bark of trees and renders mere twigs both more and less substantial.  I light fires.  An introvert by nature, I wish a hearty Merry Christmas to people I barely know, sometimes wondering whether such words mean to them the same thing they mean to me.  (Probably not, if only because one's confused spiritual life is entirely idiosyncratic--as are other people's.)

Coming in after the shoveling to listen to the evening news, I thought there's darkness enough in the world, much of which I talked about in my last post, so I won't weight down this quest for light with  despair, murder, war, terrorism, fundamentalism of many kinds--which I tend to see as the source of most of the world's evil, because people who are sure they have the right line on things can justify doing just about anything to impose their "truth" on everyone else.

Closer to the solstice and to Christmas, we're driven by two contradictory impulses.  We're frantic and frenetic, trying to get everything bought, wrapped, planned, baked, prepared to begin feasting on Christmas Eve.  Yet what we really want is a brief hibernation:  we want to get out of the traffic and the grocery store, where we've gone for the parsley and lemon we've forgotten, seen and avoided several neighbours because we don't feel cheerful just now; we want to hibernate, sit down in front of a fire and pretend to be a child for about 48 hours.  We'd also like, please, to get out of the kitchen for a bit, though the house smells divine.

Somehow the balancing between that centrifugal busy-ness and the centirpetal hibernation begins to generate light.  We take baking to the woman next door whose husband has been in a nursing home for years now, and we struggle to make conversation.  We are patient with the person in front of us in the line at the grocery store because she realizes there's something important she's forgotten:  the tin of pineapple for the ham, perhaps, without which it won't be quite the same.  The cloves will look so lonely.  We look with wonder at the people assembled at our table, and are silently grateful.  Kindness kindles something:  a season of light.