Likenesses and the unseen hand

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“To read is to dream, guided by someone else’s hand. To read carelessly and distractedly is to let go of that hand. Superficial erudition is the only method for reading well and being profound.” – Fernando Pessoa

An unseen hand (not Adam Smith’s invisible one) guides my reading choices from one thing to the next and each is a link to a mighty, unbroken, infinite chain – coincidental mentions of concepts I had just been contemplating. Thinking and writing obsessively about mirrors and suddenly I decide, “Now is the right time to read Vonnegut” – and woven throughout is the concept of mirrors as “leaks” – “holes between two universes”. But even in the book I improbably read on teeth, dentistry and oral health, what springs off the page? “A “photograph is more than a mirror. In the face of mortality, it offers hope for a permanent self.” Or in a contemporary Japanese-German short story by Yoko Tawada:

“Eighty percent of the human body is made of water, so it isn’t surprising that one sees a different face in the mirror each morning. The skin of the forehead and cheeks changes shape from moment to moment like the mud of a swamp, shifting with the movements of the water below and the footsteps of the people walking above it. I had hung a framed photograph of myself beside the mirror. The first thing I would do when I got up was to compare my reflection with the photograph, checking for discrepancies which I then corrected with makeup.”

And perhaps more deeply than mere reflections in a mirror, reading Vonnegut’s work and rereading Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, their warnings and observations about American and/or totalitarian societies provide obvious parallels:

“It was after the catastrophe, when they shot the president and machine-gunned the congress and the army declared a state of emergency. They blamed it on the Islamic fanatics, at the time.

Keep calm, they said on television. Everything is under control.” -from The Handmaid’s Tale

“Seems like the only kind of job an American can get these days is committing suicide in some way.” – from Breakfast of Champions

“America is the wealthiest nation on Earth, but its people are mainly poor, and poor Americans are urged to hate themselves. … They mock themselves and glorify their betters. The meanest eating or drinking establishment, owned by a man who is himself poor, is very likely to have a sign on its wall asking this cruel question: ‘If you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich?’ There will also be an American flag no larger than a child’s hand – glued to a lollipop stick and flying from the cash register.” – from Slaughterhouse Five

At no time is this more timely – in these works of fiction, or as a red thread sewn through much of modern non-fiction, such as other books I’ve recently read, such as the incisive Age of Anger, White Trash, Teeth and even the books on addiction.

Other parallels are not as obvious – in Atwood there are the “Marthas”, ominous-sounding household servants, and in Breakfast of Champions, “Marthas” are large designed-for-disaster buses converted into ambulances.

It fascinates me to no end that despite dipping into and reading from the broadest range of disciplines, there are connections between all of them: Virtually everything can swing back around to this perverted idea of uninterrupted “progress” and the selfish, perverted definitions society gives to the word “progress” – in the individualism described in Age of Anger, embodied by the Boomers, leading to the hungry ghosts and spiritual emptiness Gabor Maté discusses and diagnoses. And then the effects – ranging from the dismal and often fatal results of the healthcare and dental care system in the US as described in Teeth, to the “long-term losers” described in Age of Anger, such as the degradation of any hope for a country like Congo (about which I also recently read a book): “In Dostoyevsky’s view, the cost of such splendour and magnificence as displayed at the Crystal Palace was a society dominated by the war of all against all, in which most people were condemned to be losers.”

None of these overlaps should be a surprise. It should also not be a surprise that Dostoevsky is cited in almost every book I have read no matter what discipline, time period in which it was written or what genre, fiction or non-fiction. Dr Gabor Maté quotes Dostoevsky in his book on addiction; Dostoevsky figures prominently, as quoted above, in Age of Anger. And even in Vonnegut.

“Rosewater said an interesting thing to Billy one time about a book that wasn’t science fiction. He said that everything there was to know about life was in The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky. “But that isn’t enough any more,” said Rosewater.

Seeing and making the connections is gratifying, but much like an alcoholic seeking long-term sobriety, just going to meetings (or in this case connecting the dots) is hardly enough. The addict needs to commit to engage with all the steps to make progress, and the reader must start to process and form her own ideas about the connections identified.

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