Thursday, March 14, 2024

"Witness attends to being"


So Jan Zwicky writes in "The Syntax of Ethical Style," an essay her wise, learned, and mind-blowing new book, Once Upon a Time in the West.  I promise to get back to this.  This is where I want to end up.

But I want to start, perhaps not improbably, with the etymology of "narrate," which comes from the Latin "narrare," with its roots in "gnarus," or "knowing." Intuitively you know this.  Good narrators know what they are talking about and they know how to tell an effective story or joke.  Or you know it in another way when you distrust some narrators, the unreliable narrators like the butler Stephens in The Remains of the Day.  I came upon an unreliable narrator last night when I finished Sarah Bernstein's provocative and yet puzzling Study for Obedience. I suspect that our unnamed narrator is not entirely honest with us.  There were so many inconsistencies between the selfishness the narrator's family accuses her of and her inclination to give herself over to everyone else's will. There can be power in such renunciation. I also suspect that's not the whole story, that Bernstein is exploring a complex relationship between history's victims and its murderous bullies or even those who look the other way while bullies do the dirty work. Who can reliably tell such a story?

You also know about would-be narrators, like your favourite four-year-old, who tells the story of her or his day saying "and then....and then....and then...."  Narrative is not just sequence; it has to know something.  I'm going to look like that narrator just now as I try to pull the threads of the last couple of weeks and find myself in the middle of the night reading Jan Zwicky. But I hope I'll come off "knowing" in the end.

So I've decided to get off the medication for sleep I've been taking for upwards of ten years--well before I retired.  In fact, part of the reason I retired was that I had been sleeping so badly that I envisioned coming into class some day and curling up under the table where professors put their books and notes, and napping while my students quietly left.  Sleep is a huge issue these days--most North Americans don't get enough sleep--and by a series of accidents, I had read quite a few articles on sleep which told me that I was taking 2 1/2 times the usual dose of this medication and it wasn't working. (I also learned later that the med cause "fatigue" and wondered about the logic of prescribing a medication for exhaustion that in turn causes fatigue.  Semantics?)

I also learned that the way to learn to sleep was through CBT-I, or Cognitive Behaviour Therapy for Insomnia.  You go to work on your sleep hygiene, which I'm already very good at.  No coffee after four, very little tv that goes late, eschewing screens, etc. Then the first step, my wonderful therapist told me, is to answer my panic about not sleeping  by telling myself that "I'll be okay."  He tells me this in a wonderful deep voice that says with certainty, yes, I'll be okay.  I'm not going to die of lack of sleep, not anytime soon, anyway.  Here's the other rule, the one I find harder.  If you are not sleeping, you get out of bed and do something else.  For me, it's always a coin toss, getting out of bed.  The cats are settled in.  It's warm and comfortable.  But it's also very frustrating and aggravating and I can't get comfortable so I'm spinning around like a dervish and pulling the covers every which way.  

All of this is kind of destabilizing.  Who are you in the middle of the night when you are all alone and can't sleep, night after night?  When even the streets are quiet? Your social self, charming as it is might be, is useless.  Memories.  Ah, memories.  They can comfort or sandbag you, so that might not be the place to go.  I've discovered solitaire isn't bad.  I can't get myself organized to work on a quilt.  Can you imagine the scene:  Bill hears this mysterious whirring at 3 a.m. and gets up to find his wife, her white hair wafting as she moves, maniacally sewing? Reading mysteries, even tame ones, only urges  you to keep reading.  Some novels are okay:  I've just finished re-re-reading Thomas Mann's Dr. Faustus, which is such a complex historical puzzle that your brain is working while your feelings are disengaged.  Feelings.  Feelings are not good at 3 a.m.

So I've found that nonfiction is often the best reading for the middle of the night.  I found Robert Hass's essays in What Light Can Do to be very helpful.  He has a calm, evocative voice that represents his thinking about poetry and culture very clearly.  I don't need to remember everything he tells me about a Japanese poet whose name I cannot pronounce, but the essay gives me another way to think about poetry.  So, a slightly sleepy public intellectual is a fine identity for the middle of the night.  

That said, why did I move on to Jan Zwicky's Once Upon a Time in the West, essays by a brilliant and exacting intelligence?  I simply knew there were essays that I would come back to; others, like "The Ethics of the Negative Review," which I would just vigorously agree with. Or "Integrity and Ornament," an essay on Adolf Loos and his belief that ornament was inherently decadent, touched on architectural issues Nikka had taught me about.  So I could nod along with Zwicky--though looking back over it, I can see that I underlined many passages on the Loos essay that of course I need to revisit.   

But on a particularly bad night, one when my sense of self had gone walkabout, I was reading "The Syntax of Ethical Style."  A little heavier, that one. But I just persevered until I read a section entitled "Ontological Attention and Lyric Form," which is part of a complex description of what  lyric thought is and does.  (For complicated reasons, she distinguishes between lyric thought and lyric poetry.) Part of what lyric thought does is to bear witness.  Describing the twenty-two days when Vedran Smailovic played Giazotto's Adagio in G Minor at a Sarajevo bomb site where twenty-two people died, Zwicky describes his project (and the italics are hers): "This happened.  See:  a real life.  See: a real death.  See: reality.  That is:  witness attends to being" (129). 

That raised the hair on my arms and confirmed some very odd plans I have for a series of brief poems, perhaps haikus, inspired by Robert Hass's humanistic view of poetry, where I just try to be witness to the everyday, while submerging the "I" as much as possible.  I probably don't need to explain how this is a response to Ukraine, Gaza, Haiti, the 4,000 mile long east-to-west strip of African countries who have experienced coups in the last five years where life is still chaotic.  Or maybe I do need to make that link, which rattles painfully around in my head these days, noisy and unnerving. What do I do with my horror and hopelessness in the face of my own privilege and good luck?  Beyond sending money to Doctors without Borders, I live here

And then Zwicky writes "But concerned with our attunement to the whole.  Positive witness understands that we have a duty to praise, and that it is this duty that underlies the witness of mourning.  Cheerfulness is a virtue not just because it makes us pleasant company for other humans...but because it reflects a genuine grasp of the most fundamental fact of the matter:  things exist.  The witness of grief is the complement of our ability to stand before this fact in joyful astonishment" (129).  

It was as if she had found that self that had gone walkabout, had given it back to me in the middle of the night, in the vulnerable hour.  It was Troni Grande who gave me the word, saying one day over coffee that I'm always cheerful.  I was shocked.  The life that goes on in my head is often not cheerful, is often sickened and grappling with--let's just call it the rage and self-absorption loose in the world, on intimate and national scales, and be done with it.  But I strive to be cheerful because otherwise I am useless.  If I'm glum, I don't raise anyone else's spirits, I can't help anyone else.  Besides, the privileged, lucky part of me knows that complete despair is dishonest. All I need to do is to look at the stones I've collected for the bowls in my office--stones!--to know the world is a miracle. In the middle of the night, Zwicky gave me the existential ballast to acknowledge the grief I often feel but to also to know that it's my job to be attuned to the remarkable whole.   

An ethical, reflective, aware life is undeniably hard right now. But maybe Zwicky has also given you permission to celebrate what is.   

1 comment:

  1. If only you had a "Like" button! I don't feel I have anything to add, but want you to know it's an entry I've enjoyed and thank you for this timely reminder: "acknowledge the grief I often feel but to also to know that it's my job to be attuned to the remarkable whole." -Kate