Scattered thoughts reading turning 61


“I am ruminating,” said Mr. Pickwick, “on the strange mutability of human affairs.”
– Charles Dickens

Death is secondary to the reality of absence engrained in me as a child, I’ve come to believe. To the child seeing out (yes, seeing, not looking), when you are gone (or not visible) you do not exist. Simple as that. After a certain age (at what age I can’t say, although if I’d tuned to this notion earlier, observing our first grandchild the past several months, I could have established it almost to the day) the child loves peek-a-boo only because absence and return are as quick and as certain as the game is over before the sharp intake of breath registers as deep fear or dread.

And what is absence but recognition of the Other in a different key? Other begins as differentiation from self – mother, family and friends, as the child’s remembered world expands. Eventually, Other is everything other than this: this moment, this place, this Other we call our own body (although, okay, mind/body is convention too). We stand outside all nature as Other, which becomes God, or, outside God (the concept of creator), the endless cosmos/universe, logical or chaotic or chaotically-logical, depending.

To think that reading a book titled The Other, conjoined with the turn to my 62d year, would release distillations running in all directions: personal, political, existential. (As I write this Time magazine’s headline is “The Decline and Fall of Christian America,” while that of Newsweek reads “Vanishing Act: How Climate Change is Causing a New Age of Extinction.” Our own little corner of this moment in infinity divided between judgmental gods and selection of a different sort.)

To sense that the space between the “this now and that then” of thought, is where love takes root, and where we find the related extensions of tolerance, acceptance, or ties to family, community, family of man. We love because the Other leaves; we are bound to others already in memory because they will have left. Permutations of this theme abound in Gabriel Josipovici’s intriguing novel Goldberg: Variations. In it an 18th century scholar parses John Donne’s poem “A Nocturnal Upon S. Lucy’s Day,” which is about love as the opposite of un-being and extinction. Love of Lucy called the poet into being and her death leaves him “re-begot / Of absence, darkness, death; things which are not.” In another passage in the novel the scholar describes marriage as a dance – not two become one, but two in accord, “well-being in reciprocity,” recognition of space between one and the other, “the mutual respect of the one for the other, and into the physical pleasure of each in its own being, which is that of the other.” Love is thus absence in place.

The scholar’s wife addresses him in her diary while he is distant on business: absent. “I have grown used to your presence in the house and it is hard to be alone.” Or, again: “I do not really grieve at your absence. I merely miss your presence.” And then she makes a remarkable observation about her private writing in the diary:

I had never thought of any of this till I sat down half and hour ago filled with the need to write about you. That is what writing is like. The sheet of paper before one and the pen in one’s hand seem to allow those things to emerge which one knew but didn’t know one knew. It may not be very interesting or very profound, but it brings relief. Like hugging you. But why is it not sufficient to sit in my chair and imagine myself hugging you? After all, when I write here in my notebook you are no more present than if I closed my eyes and thought of you. Indeed, less so perhaps, since if I close my eyes I can see you, whereas when I write I certainly do not. But then when I hug you I do not see you, I feel you. And that is what seems to happen with writing. But why should that be so? To feel you, you have to be present and close to me, and now you are neither. Yet I am sure this is the truth, that when I close my eyes I see you but when I write I feel you.”

“How can one touch that which is absent?” Her answer is writing; that is, the thing written: the book, is other than the Other, the Other in yet another key! But is it not also a bridge to the Other; a thread of something that in fact binds us to the Other?

Writing and reading, the book and the Other. And writing and reading is why we are here, at this moment, in this place, in the first place, isn’t it?

“Lucy, you got some ‘splainin’ to do!”
-Ricky Ricardo

And at 61 I’m ambivalent about – no, indifferent to – the singular nature of experience. I might say I regret not being eternal, but at 61 I’m so Other to myself – Other to so many prior selves – that I can’t say that’s a very strong regret. I do regret a bit (with what I think must be real regret) that I missed the moment in human evolution, the culminating moment, which for me occupies the literature of late 19th and very early 20th centuries, the moment when there was some ground for human doubt about the origins of the universe, the cause on which all the rest is founded. (I get to the heart of this in specific terms at the end of this ramble, if you want to scroll to it now.)

That’s the distillation, enigmatic in parts, of my reading the last several weeks. The book, however, it may seem odd to say, is other than the Other, outside of any sort of Other, though perhaps that’s a reader’s obsession, in a time when reading is almost irrelevant. But here’s some of the reading that brought me round to this through the last few weeks of my 61st year.

Ryszard Kapuscinski pioneered his own rare form of embedded journalism. Foreign correspondent for a Polish newspaper, through the years of Communism and its demise and to his death in 2007, he reported third world hot spots in Africa, Asia and Latin America with an engaging, sympathetic eye. Going back 25 years, The Emperor and The Shah of Shahs, the first of his books I read, still seem like novels to me. These books showed me humanity in a form about as other from me as I could imagine, which, reader that I am, is a direct route to my sympathy. (O, brave new World, that imagines such creatures in’t!) Kapuscinski registered cultural differences as one with a voracious appetite for experience rather than simply knowledge. His last book, My Travels with Herodotus, published the year of his death, explains how much of his sympathy derived from his reading of Herodotus, the volume he carried with him in all his travels. The new short book, The Other, is a very slim posthumous collection of essays and lectures on the theme of the Other, counter-imperial reflections on the West’s perceptions of non-European, non-white corners of the globe, although Kapuscinski does not discount the isolation of otherness as nationality, gender, profession, generation.

In an age of increasing globalization and atomization, trends which at once expand the range of contacts and points of reference and place increased scrutiny on the local and the individual, there are forces globalizing a homogenized, largely consumer reality, as well as forces building walls, shielding the insular and parochial from view. In his own singular voice, a voice inspiring but mostly matter-of-fact, Kapuscinski speaks of engaging the Other on the ground of difference but in a key of fellowship, the “conviction of solidarity,” a notion he picks up from fellow-Pole Joseph Conrad, “which binds together all humanity – the dead to the living and the living to the unborn.”

The thing is, I feel bound to the Other in ways that the Other in many of its manifestations is not bound to me. (And, I’m sure you’d feel the same if you’d read what I have or knew what I know.) For example, two novels from Europe exploring the divide between the harboring of liberal ideals in a secure world and the knowledge that there are victims of hunger, war and disease living in the shadow of that world. Domenico Starnone’s First Execution (Europa Editions, $15.00) is about a high school professor who has used history and literature to preach Sixties radicalism to generations of bored students. Now one of his bright former students has been arrested, accused of terrorism, and asks him to carry a message he believes is part of a “subversive mission,” an assassination plot. What’s his responsibility to his own ideals, or to someone who followed the logic of his teaching? That’s chapters 1 and 2. In chapter 3, enter the author (or “writer/narrator”) to describe, through the rest of the book, the challenge of trying to write a convincing novel about terrorism at the same time as he explores different plot lines and dialogue streams. Post-modern trappings, but shouldered very lightly. In fact the real story is that the writer/narrator has his own issues; he confronts a racist bully on a bus, which sets off a real-life personal drama that challenges his broader assumptions about activism and social responsibility. I hope I don’t make it sound glib, because it is a very original, witty and gripping story. (Plus these Europa Editions paperbacks are beautiful, and pleasurable to hold and read.)

Arturo Perez Reverte’s The Painter of Battles is another fascinating novel about a war photojournalist who, after 30 years framing the world’s horror show, in all the same venues reported by Kapuscinski, abandons the camera in order to paint a circular mural of battle on the inside wall of an old lighthouse tower on the coast of Spain. He is stalked by a former Croatian soldier, the subject of his most famous photo, the world-wide publication of which resulted in the torture and death of the Croatian’s wife and son. The novel is a history of battlefield art, a catalogue of the world’s recent small wars, a romantic love story, a mystery, and a dialogue about the meaning of art and the ethical responsibility of the artist. All of that in a compelling 211 pages! I finished quickly and began again because I didn’t take time to think about all the issues the story raises that are worth thinking about.

The painter of battles has worn himself very thin thinking about what he’s seen and the degree to which the embedded filmmaker and photographer are complicit in the grisly images they record, the collateral damage of their actions, no matter what occurs outside camera range. His is a world without a god, but not without an aggressive, rigid sense of fatalism. The terrible laws of his world include a professed belief in “the microscopic origin of irreversibility,” “the indolent yawn of the universe.” It is cause and effect, minimal causes giving rise to great disasters; but also the identical cause – the human heart – spawning tragedy in all meridians. “After all, wars are nothing more than life carried to dramatic extremes. Nothing that peace cannot contain, in small doses.”

Now in his tower the painter of battles paints “the photo I was never able to get.” It is an all-encompassing image of what’s recorded in his heart and memory:

How subtle and how strange, he thought, the ties that can be established among things that appear not to be connected: paintings, words, memory, horror. It seemed that all the chaos of the world scattered across the earth by the caprice of drunken or imbecilic gods – an explanation as good as any other – or by coincidences devoid of mercy, could find itself quickly rearranged, converted into a whole of precise proportions by the key to an unsuspected image, a word spoken by chance, an emotion, a painting contemplated with a woman who had been dead ten years, remembered now and painted again in the light of a biography different from that of the one who conceived it. Of a gaze that perhaps enriched and explained it.

So it was inevitable (if un-fated) that I turned in this frame of mind to Samuel Beckett.

Beckett wrote letters, (did he ever!), some 15,000 over the course of his life (the ones found, transcribed and catalogued), 2,500 of them to be published in four volumes (another to be quoted in notes), of which The Letters of Samuel Beckett, Volume I: 1929-1940 is the first. In 1928, with a degree in French and Italian, Beckett sets up in Paris to think about writing and to visit museums to teach himself the history of art. He tries or thinks about trying to teach, work in a museum, or become a commercial pilot. He works as secretary for James Joyce, suffers all sorts of ailments, is stabbed by a street person, and writes his early work, including Murphy. The letters are great, chatty and complaint-driven – about his health, publishers and friends and acquaintances. He reads a lot of Schopenhauer and is buoyed by it for what he sees as “the intellectual justification of unhappiness– the greatest that has ever been attempted.”

He is impressed by Melville’s Moby Dick: “That’s more like the real stuff. White whales and natural piety.”

And by light of Beckett’s fiction one would not expect sentimental regard for family: “Lovely walk this morning with Father, who grows old with a very graceful philosophy. Comparing bees & butterflies to elephants & parrots & speaking of indentures with the leveler. Barging through hedges and over the walls with the help of my shoulder, blaspheming and stopping to rest under colour of admiring the view. I’ll never have any one like him.” A couple months later, his father dying, Beckett dresses in the “brightest clothes” he can find. “It is a very blank silent house now,” he writes. “I can’t write about him, I can only walk the fields and climb the ditches after him.”

Beckett, of course, had many Others. His chatter after reading is what I most enjoy. Here he is on Keats (manhandled quotes from “To Autumn” and Ode to a Nightingale” and all): “I like that crouching brooding quality in Keats – squatting on the moss, crushing a petal, licking his lips and rubbing his hands, ‘counting the last oozings, hours by hours.’ I like him the best of them all, because he doesn’t beat his fists on the table. I like that awful sweetness and thick soft damp green richness. And weariness. ‘Take into the air my quiet breath.’”

During these years wandering between Ireland and Europe Beckett begins to see that “language is a veil which one has to tear apart in order to get to those things (or the nothingness) lying behind it.” And climbing ditches after his father Beckett found the landscapes of Estragon’s and Vladimir’s external worlds (each his own), as well as the internal landscapes of Hamm and Winnie.

From that side of Beckett to Henry James, and The Princess Casamassima (1886), is a mere half turn, really. Though James would not “tear” but instead loved to touch each thread of the veil for its nuance. In this novel it is the tatters of revolutionary politics and the hangers-thereon that interest James. His hero, Hyacinth, born at prison’s door and raised in poverty, has an artistic sensibility (he’s a bookbinder) and little hope of living in the world visible to him but untouchable, although he’s courted by a curious aristocracy which feels the “breeze from a thoroughly unexpected quarter” and wants to dabble. Torn between privilege and degradation, the civilized and the wretched, Hyacinth comes to sense that his revolutionary heroes have no interest in uplifting the masses to high civilization, not even to an appreciation of the loving care he brings to simple bookbinding. If abolishing immemorial inequality simply means for all mankind “a similar nuance of asininity,” he wants none of it. Traditional realism and a remarkable range of deeply-perceived characters, filtered through James’ sensibility – The Princess Casamassima has that and more, and I’ll not try to convince folks who don’t have the patience for it.

“Art is a substitute for religion and so is religion.”
-T.S. Eliot

But Henry James shores so much against ruin, fills so many interstices of the mise-en-scene, as it were, that the effect is throw in doubt whether we’ve seen anything at all, and the apprehension that we may not find a way to see enough. If you miss the existential in Henry James you miss most of what he’s doing (or of what we now read him doing).

Which brings me, turn and turn about, now that I’ve plod through so many ditches, to ask about the ways we think to fill absence, to ask the difference between God, drunken gods of myth, biological necessity, money markets, destiny, coincidence, any necessary fiction. It’s this, I think: I’m without belief, in that sense, although I do know the inertia, the sunken hollowness of absence. I smile most all the time, but my mouth has a natural downturn that suggests otherwise. My wife, who knows how fiercely I am attached and how relatively content I am with my balance of absence/presence, says spending time with our grandchild makes me happier. Well, perhaps, relatively speaking, but it’s because he is evidence of consciousness without definition, the beginning of the next infinity.

And here’s in part the source of my delight. I was reminded of it reading Gerard Manley Hopkins, who wrote artful poems in and around the elected silence of his vocation as a Jesuit priest. Each line in a Hopkins poem seems like a stutter-step before the crash of vision. I turned again to Ron Hansen’s biographical novel about Hopkins, Exiles, a brilliant evocation of the enigma of belief. Hansen describes Hopkins as “a child of a century in which many writers, artists and intellectuals abandoned not only Christianity but belief in God altogether. Their antipathies were generating a cultural shift away from organized religion and toward a view of God as only an interesting uncertainty.”

Hopkins, on the other hand, writes Hansen, considered God “an incomprehensible certainty.”

Take either side of the religious debate today, God or Evolution, a debate in extremis, and you think: blunt, convenient, bullying assuredness; making a virtue of being stupid and ill-informed, or over-informed. The histories of religions are filled with cruelty and violence. So much of the science written in support of selection is uncultured.

A debate between “an interesting uncertainty” and “an incomprehensible certainty” is likely to be a quiet one. Quieter still, the conversation between black and blackest, such as Henry James’ ruminations in a letter to Henry Adams, March 21, 1914:

I have your melancholy outpouring of the 7th, & I know not how to acknowledge it than by the full recognition of its unmitigated blackness. Of course we are lone survivors, of course the past that was our lives is at the bottom of an abyss—if the abyss has any bottom; of course too there’s no use talking unless one particularly wants to. But the purpose, almost, of my printed divagations was to show you that one can, strange to say, still want to—or at least can behave as if one did. Behold me therefore so behaving–& apparently capable of continuing to do so. I still find my consciousness interesting—under cultivation of that interest. Cultivate it with me, dear Henry—that’s what I hoped to make you do; to cultivate yours for all it has in common with mine. Why mine yields an interest I don’t know that I can tell you, but I don’t challenge or quarrel with it—I encourage it with a ghastly grin. You see I still, in presence of life (or of what you to deny to be such,) have reactions—as many as possible–& the book I sent you is a proof of them. It’s, I suppose, because I am the queer monster the artist, an obstinate finality, an inexhaustible sensibility. Hence the reactions—appearances, memories, many things go on playing on it with consequences that I note & “enjoy” (grim word!) noting. It all takes doing—and I do. I believe I shall do yet again—it is still an act of life.

I find that passage very moving – and, yes, uplifting. But my grin is not ghastly and my enjoyments are not grim. He wrote this at the point, even before World War I and the other – Other – horrors of the 20th century, when any hesitancy between “an interesting uncertainty” and “an incomprehensible certainty” lost meaning altogether. Did we not wake at some point to the reality that we are beyond human and other than human? (If we had tuned to the notion early enough we might have marked it to the day.) I feel like Josipovici’s scholar most days, able to be “both myself and not myself,” like “two voices rising into the silence and then vanishing again into it.” Invoke God or evolution for any of it? So the real miracle – miracle! – is presence of other other – the living in “well-being in reciprocity” with another other, the nothing arbitrary, the absence-coming-into-being.

This is not bravado, false or otherwise (if there is otherwise), pain is pain. But I see no need to write The History of Rasselas in this century or wring my hands about the big Absence. We find what there is of morality, of love, of otherness, in our moment in the stream of infinity, in the interesting certainty of annihilation, a broad enough stream after all to provide wonder and curiosity; we cultivate the interest now without the ghastly grin, reading here in the abyss.

For you cannot say abyss without the slight tug that starts a smile.