Said and read – May 2019

Standard

By making one’s reading public, it becomes performative – by default – and that is not to everyone’s taste. We read a book; we tell other people; they infer what they will. What alters the meaning of the transaction is context. There is a substantive difference between recommending a book to a friend in conversation and publishing an illustrated recommendation on the Internet. But why keep that enthusiasm bottled up? Why hoard it?” –Andy Miller, essay, Boundless

I haven’t been bottling up or hoarding my renewed passion for reading, and I have never cared about the reactions. But I had also never really considered that anyone would have a reaction – at least not as strong a reaction as Miller describes. More on that later…

May did not start off by yielding much time for reading, and what reading I did ended up feeling like a chore. I continued on the tear through Joyce Carol Oates territory, as I did last month, and quickly tired of her style, which – prior to this extensive reading – I had somehow believed to be more wide-ranging than it proved to be. But once I started, much like with hated television shows or unpleasant experiences, I could not stop. I just have to complete the mission and see how it turns out (even if I am reasonably sure that it will turn out exactly as badly as the entire journey has gone). I also, for some reason, wasted a lot of time reading works by the Marquis de Sade – something I had thought I would do in high school; having now read them, I think they read as the complete vulgarity that would provoke much-craved shock value… in high school.

I knew that I would have limited time and thus did not want to invest in picking up books I was truly excited about (perhaps these kinds of books can wait for a bit of summer holiday), and instead took e-books from the library that held no meaning or excitement for me at all. And it’s in this way that I thought my reflections from May reading would be as lacklustre as the things I ended up reading.

But toward the latter half of the month, things started to pick up (coinciding, I suppose, with loads of two and three-hour flights I had to take, which always lead to uninterrupted concentration for reading and absolutely no other distractions or things to do instead). May, then, didn’t turn out too badly in terms of reading; I’ve come closing to catching up to the pace I prefer (approximately one book per day) without going overboard.

Anyway, previous Said and Read blog posts to see what I was reading and rambling about in the past can be found here: 2019 – April, March, February, January. 2018 – NovemberOctober, SeptemberAugust, July, June, May, April, March, February and January.

Thoughts on reading for May:

“No matter what the grief, its weight, we are obliged to carry it” –Dorianne Laux

Sometimes reading feels like a distraction in which one can lose herself completely to escape everything else. We may, as Dorianne Laux has written, be obliged to carry our grief, but does that mean we must face it? When one has a world of books to insert oneself into and feed on, one need not face any reality all the time.

Highly recommended

*My Name is Asher LevChaim Potok

*The ChosenChaim Potok

“I am not satisfied with it, either, Reuven. We cannot wait for God. If there is an answer, we must make it ourselves.” I was quiet. “Six million of our people have been slaughtered,” he went on quietly. “It is inconceivable. It will have meaning only if we give it meaning. We cannot wait for God.”

It was a random choice to pick up Potok’s The Chosen, but it inspired me enough to get My Name is Asher Lev. Both are steeped in the unfamiliar but fascinatingly rigid worlds of Hasidic and Orthodox Judaism, and the personal/identity conflicts that come about both within these communities and navigating outside of them.

*Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?Frans de Waal

I don’t really have my own words to describe why I loved this. I like Frans de Waal in general; I love animals – and as naive as these descriptors sound, I don’t think it needs more embellishment.

I don’t think we can deny the intelligence of animals, and we do so only out of some weird need to feel superior. Intelligence, we must recognize, exists in so many different ways that we as humans are too arrogant sometimes to realize or even understand. Indeed there are kinds of cognition that certain animals have that we as humans never needed to develop because they would be irrelevant to our experience and environment (“Cognitive evolution is marked by many peaks of specialization.“)

Every species deals flexibly with the environment and develops solutions to the problems it poses.

But what about skeptics who believe that animals are by definition trapped in the present, and only humans contemplate the future? Are they making a reasonable assumption, or are they blinkered as to what animals are capable of? And why is humanity so prone to downplay animal intelligence?

Again and again, de Waal posits that our ‘tests’ of intelligence, instead of proving that an animal does not understand the problem we want it to solve proves that we do not understand the animal. Reimagining tests often produces very different results (and this is probably true when testing intelligence in people with different kinds of cognitive ability/strength).

Researchers concluded that they just didn’t get the problem. It occurred to no one that perhaps we, the investigators, didn’t get the elephant. Like the six blind men, we keep turning around and poking the big beast, but we need to remember that, as Werner Heisenberg put it, “what we observe is not nature in itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.”

This book, too, informed much of what I was doing in my psychology studies, including interesting thoughts on the “theory of mind” concept that dominates much of developmental psychology. As de Waal points out, can we eliminate the idea that animals (or small children) hold a theory about the minds of others? But this terminology, as he argues, makes the whole enterprise entirely scientific and disembodied. Even completely formed adults don’t contemplate that they grasp the mental states of others at an abstract level – so it ends up further questioning and assigning attributes that are meant to conclude that the lack of “rational evaluation” in perceiving something like theory of mind equals a lack of intelligence.

Good – or better than expected

*The Woman in the DunesKobo Abe

Atmospheric, vividly claustrophobic and terrifying.

*Juliet, NakedNick Hornby

I had never read Nick Hornby and mostly got from his writing what I expected – a quick read and a hearty helping of manchild BS. I was ‘rewarded’ with having my expectations met, particularly in the book A Long Way Down, which just felt… sloppy? It had one redeeming thought amidst describing the criss-crossing of the lives of a diverse suicidal group who end up not … ending it.

The guy who jumped had two profound and apparently contradictory effects on us all. Firstly, he made us realize that we weren’t capable of killing ourselves. And secondly, this information made us suicidal again. That isn’t a paradox, if you know anything about the perversity of human nature.” (from A Long Way Down)

Having nothing to compare it to, especially since my Hornby knowledge is mostly based on film and television adaptations, I got exactly what I expected. Which, I guess, was kind of disappointing (because one hopes that their low expectations will be exceeded).

Thus when I read Juliet, Naked, I expected more of the same but was somewhat surprised to find that the book was slightly more engaging and its characters slightly more alive. Am I alone in picturing the single-minded obsessive but otherwise unmotivated Duncan, despite his clearly being English, as some variation of Rainn Wilson? No idea why he came to mind. Side note: I guess I never knew until I just Googled Wilson that he’s from Seattle, which is itself a mecca for a lot of obsessive music types like Duncan. Perhaps because this book was told largely from the point of view of a put-upon, tired, supportive-to-a-fault girlfriend who finally breaks free of the boyfriend’s near-lifelong obsession with a somewhat obscure musician who disappeared into the mythology created by those obsessive fans who try to keep them alive via obsessive internet forums, it was more relatable than much of Hornby’s catalog.

When the girlfriend finds her voice, calling Duncan out on the fact that he wouldn’t have a personality at all were it not for his obsession with this phantom musician, we begin to see some of the pains of the kinds of halfhearted relationships that outlive their efficacy, if not their use (even the dead relationships that live too long – one-third too long, if you believe Ayelet Waldman – have some use to us), and never quite reach one’s aspirations. It hits home in its discussion of the never-had conversations about having children and the suppression of some very strong desires because one partner has put the other to sleep, as Hornby phrases it.

In this book, in fact, Hornby captures best of all the distance we grow to feel from ourselves, our feelings and our own lives – the way things we should feel become symbolic and abstract, whether because we have insulated ourselves or have been self-centered – we end up at the same place:

Anyone can say they haven’t done anything. Today I learned that I am going to be a grandfather. As I don’t really know the pregnant daughter in question—I don’t really know four of my five children, by the way—I was not able to feel joyful. For me, the only real emotional content of the news was the symbolism, what it said about me. I don’t feel bad about that, particularly. There’s no point in pretending to feel joy when someone you don’t know very well tells you she’s pregnant, although I suppose I do feel bad that various decisions I’ve made and avoided have reduced my daughter to the status of a stranger.

*Love and TreasureAyelet Waldman

I have not enjoyed previous meanderings into Waldman’s writing, but this book used aspects of World War II as a backdrop, which is generally a storytelling draw. Here Waldman has woven together a contemporary story with a historical one, and it’s through the historical detail that she pulls you in:

The wealth of the Jews of Hungary, of all of Europe, was to be found not in the laden boxcars of the Gold Train but in the grandmothers and mothers and daughters themselves, in the doctors and lawyers, the grain dealers and psychiatrists, the writers and artists who had created a culture of sophistication, of intellectual and artistic achievement. And that wealth, everything of real value, was all but extinguished.

Waldman does have something of a gift for dialogue that casually casts out nominally philosophical, hard-won, life-experience-style gems:

“I am developing a theory of relationships. Would you like to hear it?” “I would.” “It’s called the Principle of One-Third. Each and every love affair lasts for precisely one-third longer than it should. If you’ve been together for three years, then the last year was a waste of time, more pain than pleasure.” “And if you’ve been together for thirty years?” “Shame about that last decade.” He laughed. “Okay, then. What about a week?” “You should have gotten out midmorning on the fourth day. I’m telling you, the theory works for every relationship. The only problem with the Principle of One-Third is that it’s only once the relationship is over that you know how much time you’ve wasted. You don’t know that the last decade was pointless until you’ve been with someone for the whole thirty years. And you definitely don’t know that your husband will start fucking an ERISA lawyer in year ten until you get to year twelve and realize that the last four were a farce.”

Or:

“Sort of. We lived together, but we went to different schools. He went to Boston University. I went to Harvard.” “You are smarter than he is.” “I got better grades, that’s all.” “This is something so curious to me about women. If it were Daniel who went to Harvard he would say, ‘Yes, I am smarter.’ But because you are a woman, you say only ‘I got better grades.’ ” “You think that’s gender related?” “Men are more confident than women.” “Maybe some men are more confident than some women.” “Maybe most men are more confident than most women.” “Okay,” she said. “I think I can give you that.”

*The Satanic VersesSalman Rushdie

Certain words are ruined for me.

Whether it is the hypochondriac repeating words like “agony” and “excruciating”, stripping them of all meaning, or the overenthusiastic reader who strikes gold in some concept he has never heard of before and therefore overuses. I think here of a guy I met who constantly referred in his own writing to the djinn/jinn, leading me to think, knowing what I knew of this particular guy, that he either just read a bit of Salman Rushdie or read/watched American Gods. I can no longer, in my intolerance, see or hear those words again. Each time the word “djinn” turns up anywhere, I am reminded of this man and how readable were his motives, how transparent his immediate influences. But he is not unusual in this.

We all learn things and come to love them and cannot help ourselves from repeating them to death. Or maybe we latch onto things we never thought we would care about because someone we love loves them. By extension we come to love or care about them. I am trying to figure out where the line is – where does it pivot from someone loving or learning about something sincerely into someone overusing, performing ‘fandom’ or love, showing off? As Andy Miller describes about sharing his passion for reading, it can come across as ‘performative’; he also writes in his book (discussed below), which is the perfect encapsulation of the more charitable interpretation I wish I were always capable of ascribing to repeat offenders: “When we find a painting or a novel or a musical we love, we are briefly connected to the best that human beings are capable of, in ourselves and others, and we are reminded that our path through the world must intersect with others. Whether we like it or not, we are not alone.”

I cannot describe or see the performative pivot, but I can always feel where and when the turn comes.

Awkward pivot

Using the word “pivot”, incidentally, makes me think both of a former colleague who kept pronouncing the word as PIE-vot, as well as a newer (and very young) colleague citing an episode of Friends and Ross’s forceful, impatient instructing, “PIVOT! PIVOT!” when the characters were attempting to move a couch (which is what we were doing in the office – it was a fitting use of the reference).

Strange to think of the enduring – even fervent – popularity of Friends. All these youthful colleagues streaming it obsessively and telling me about it like they’ve discovered something new. I finally understand how my Boomer parents and their ilk felt when kids tried to introduce them to music from the 60s (or newer music that was blatantly mimicking 1960s-era originals). There’s validity in remembering and even enjoying some of Friends, but so much of it is outdated – not in the sense that you look at it and think you’re watching a relic of a bygone era, but so much of the homophobia and archetypal tropes feel insensitive and painful – they did then, too, but it was not as “done” to say so then. I recently read a thoughtful take on this in the award-winning Everywhereist blog – all about Monica’s imperfections, but most of all her history as a ‘fat girl’.

Geraldine (that’s the Everywhereist, don’t you know?) hits the nail on the head:

“The fat girl inside of me really wants to go,” Monica says. “I owe her this. I never let her eat.

The audience laughs, but it is a singularly heartbreaking sentiment. Monica is a chef, constantly surrounded by food she will never touch. It’s a modern-day Greek tragedy. The idea is never said explicitly, but it is there: that no matter how kind and loyal and giving you are, fatness will make you an outsider, fatness will make you weird and flawed. And even if you lose the weight, you can’t get rid of that.

As Naomi Wolf writes in The Beauty Myth, our cultural obsession with female thinness “is not an obsession about female beauty, but an obsession about female obedience.” Monica suppressed a part of herself that was never problematic to begin with. And she genuinely seemed less joyous as a result.”

Thank you, Geraldine. Thing is, though… this particular discrimination is just as accepted and encouraged now – as well as being mined for throwaway but cruel laughs – as when the show originally ran. I am sure there are a lot of people who watch Friends reruns and take away the same kind of feelings Geraldine put into words. But there are a whole lot more who never thought about this at all, and still won’t.

“I don’t think it’s going to pivot any more” “You think?

Why am I awkwardly pivoting from how words get ruined to how TV shows get ruined to the complete lack of compassion we feel, how inured we are to the experiences of people we see and judge only based on what is right in front of our faces? Especially when this is ostensibly a description of why The Satanic Verses surprised me by being enjoyable? I wish I had an expert way to weave into words all the threads that connect this in my mind, but it remains a roundabout that can’t be sewn into a wearable garment. Incidentally I dreamt last night that I was going to “fix” a pair of tights and rapidly ran them through a sewing machine, essentially making one of the legs unusable. That’s a bit how I feel about having introduced all this information into what has turned into absolutely nothing about The Satanic Verses.

I know what a ghost is, the old woman affirmed silently. Her name was Rosa Diamond; she was eighty-eight years old; and she was squinting beakily through her salt-caked bedroom windows, watching the full moon’s sea. And I know what it isn’t, too, she nodded further, it isn’t a scarification or a flapping sheet, so pooh and pish to all that bunkum. What’s a ghost? Unfinished business, is what.

I suppose the only real connection I can make is that I have tried to read The Satanic Verses and other Rushdie works many times over the years. I kept coming back but it was never compelling enough. And it has haunted me (i.e., unfinished business).

Finally it stuck this year, and I suppose that’s the pivot here – and ties together all this senseless rambling, if loosely. One can see something, like Friends, or words, or one’s overly enthusiastic/performative way of using them, in one way at one juncture – and in entirely another way – later, with more experience and compassion. That’s how I approach my reading here.

Not being versed in any kind of religious teaching, nor being religious, I don’t really know what I’d consider “offensive” about this book. It’s filled with sex – that’s all I can think of. I cannot reflect analytically about this book, but I found it enjoyable, and a few passages thought-provoking, if only because they reminded me so much of people in my life and their own experiences.

The avalanche of sex in which Gibreel Farishta was trapped managed to bury his greatest talent so deep that it might easily have been lost forever, his talent, that is, for loving genuinely, deeply and without holding back, the rare and delicate gift which he had never been able to employ. By the time of his illness he had all but forgotten the anguish he used to experience owing to his longing for love, which had twisted and turned in him like a sorcerer’s knife. Now, at the end of each gymnastic night, he slept easily and long, as if he had never been plagued by dream-women, as if he had never hoped to lose his heart.

But then, it also seems like a work that garnered a lot of unwarranted attention (certainly more than it would have received without the fatwa issued against Rushdie), exerting an outsized cultural influence and reach to which the actual work can never live up. I wonder if, in that sense, Friends somehow enjoys more cultural currency – well, certainly it does since it’s made for the masses, but even in its undeserved but potentially lasting cross-generational potency and legacy, it outlives the infamy/notoriety of a solid book that misses ‘greatness’.

Entertaining/informative/thoughtful or some combination thereof

*Your Brain’s PoliticsGeorge Lakoff

Reading anything by Lakoff always sets my brain on fire. When I think about how intertwined metaphors are with our existence, and how we are producing them unconsciously, I reignite so many intellectual paths never-followed from my youth, but also – at least briefly – consider language on a deeper level. This, too, has informed a great deal of the psychology study I’ve done in the last year.

Today we know that metaphors are by no means a matter of “language and language only”. Metaphors structure our everyday cognition, our perception of reality. They are a matter of thought, they are a matter of language, and they are a matter of actions.

What are ‘metaphors’ (literally)?

Let me tell you, then, what is written across busses in Athens, “metaphoroi”. The word “metaphor” stems from Greek and literally means, “to carry things to another place.” Metaphoric cognition, thus, means that we resort to elements from one cognitive domain—commonly one that we can directly experience in the world—in order to reason about another cognitive domain—commonly one that is more abstract.

I could easily ramble about this, but it’s perhaps better to limit writing on this subject to how little the average person thinks about how linguistic framing and selective metaphoric use shapes the way we think about things (and can thus be manipulated). Lakoff has argued that conservatives/Republicans (whatever you want to call the right) have used this to their advantage, and the left has struggled because they haven’t mastered this framing.

In the US, for instance, conservatives do a great job of implementing their own frames in public debate, while progressives lag behind in terms of proactively framing issues in terms of their worldview. Moreover, progressives often negate the frames that conservatives use. They constantly get caught up in arguing against conservative ideas. And they lack a well-functioning communication infrastructure that ensures adequate, moral framing of issues across progressive groups on a daily basis. Conservatives are just much better organized when it comes to these things.

*Zora and Langston: A Story of Friendship and Betrayal Yuval Taylor

Perhaps a bit of a dramatic title, I discovered this book by accident while browsing the online library. Zora Neale Hurston has always been something of a mystery – a staple of American high school reading lists with her classic Their Eyes Were Watching God, undeniably one of the greats to which I can return again and again, Hurston herself feels elusive. Even after reading this book that chronicled the friendship and falling out between two of the Harlem Renaissance‘s central figures, Hurston and Langston Hughes, Hurston feels distant. As much as is made of Hughes’ distance and keeping people at arms’ length, it is still Hurston who feels mysterious. She remains the force one wants to know about; her work endures, both within literature and anthropology. During her lifetime, she fell from favor, perhaps because she refused to embody the anger and resentment her contemporaries exhibited toward white people; because she refused the ‘fight’ without accepting the idea of being ‘lesser than’. She didn’t write about race and discrimination or being black in relation to a predominantly white society – she wrote about life and what she observed, in many cases in all-black communities. This voice was unique, and has finally been recognized as such, even if it didn’t fit the narrative for what black writers were “supposed to” produce. Hurston didn’t do anything according to what anyone expected:

Moreover, what Zora’s black critics failed to grasp was the reason behind Zora’s lifelong practice of minimizing the resentment of African Americans in her work. It was a simple one, really: “Bitterness,” as she put it in Dust Tracks on a Road, “is the graceless acknowledgment of defeat.” Zora recognized that those who are bitter and resentful are seen by themselves and others as victims, and the very existence of victims justifies, in a real way, the acts of the victimizers.”

*HungerKnut Hamsun

It is hard to imagine a time when wealthy, well-heeled, socialist Norway was the hard-up, impoverished farmer/fisherman cousin to Sweden. While not everyone suffered terrible privations, Norway was only ushered into the era of ‘too much’ in recent decades. Hamsun’s chronicle of experiencing hunger – both figurative and literal – is gripping.

A quick but engrossing read – as usual taken in while flying here or there. As the narrator attempts to keep a roof over his head and keep himself fed while making a “living” (you could never really call it that) while submitting articles for a few kroner here, a few kroner there, one gets a sense of how much he will give up for his work – and exactly what phases of delirium and want someone starving will go through. Its vivid characterizations of feelings and perceptions, filtered through this hunger, bring both the mental state and the scene to life.

The word stood out sharply against the darkness before me. I sit with open eyes, amazed at my find and laughing for joy. Then I start whispering: they might be spying on me, and I intended to keep my invention a secret. I had passed over into the sheer madness of hunger; I was empty and without pain and my thoughts were running riot. I debate with myself in silence. With the oddest jumps in my line of thought, I try to ascertain the meaning of my new word. It didn’t have to mean either God or amusement park, and who had said it should mean cattle show?

*The Sorrows of Young WertherJohann Wolfgang von Goethe

Must it be, that what makes for man’s happiness becomes the source of his misery?

I didn’t really enjoy this book, but it was filled with thoughts I found myself nodding along to and wanting to quote. Most notably, which I immediately used elsewhere:

“People would have fewer pains if—God knows why they are made this way—their imaginations were not so busily engaged in recalling past trials rather than bearing an indifferent present.

Or, as I often wonder why people are obsessed with wanting to live forever, particularly when they are obsessed with youth – and the longer they live, the further they get from this mythical youth – and the more poor is quality of life. But does quality of life truly matter to most other than as a slogan?

When I observe the restrictions that lock up a person’s active and probing powers, when I see how all activity is directed toward achieving the satisfaction of needs that in turn have no goal but to prolong our miserable existence, and that all reassurance about certain points of inquiry is only a dreaming resignation, since one paints with colorful figures and airy views the walls within which one sits imprisoned

After all, we are essentially cogs in wheels and not at all aware of the lack of freedom we have – and we would not know what to do if we found it:

I don’t know what it is about me that attracts people; so many like and attach themselves to me, and it pains me when our paths coincide for only a short stretch. If you ask what people are like here, I have to say: like everywhere! The human race is a monotonous thing. Most people work most of the time in order to live, and the little freedom they have left over frightens them so, that they will do anything to get rid of it. Oh, the regimentation of mankind!

Coincidences

*The Year of Reading DangerouslyAndy Miller

“The trick is to keep reading.”

I had pretty much thought I was done with May reading when my friend, Mr Nichols, he of deeply impeccable taste, sent a link to an article (cited above) about one man’s ‘excessive’ reading and how “something so innocuous can provoke such a range of strong responses”. Andy Miller shares in essay form how he feels compelled to redact the number of books he has read because it seems to provoke disbelief, anger, accusations of all kinds, and much more. Mr Nichols said it reminded him of my monthly collection of random thoughts (yes, this very post and its predecessors) on my own excessive reading (which has mostly generated the ‘wow! that’s shocking!’ response from people and very little of the anger or accusatory rhetoric Miller has experienced, although I suspect if I were actually known by anyone and this experiment of mine had more visibility, the negativity could get ugly).

I thanked Miller for sharing his relatable experiences; he thanked me and stated that he is glad not to be alone in this. He definitely isn’t – there are loads of us out here.

But me being me, Miller’s essay was not enough. Reading it through on my phone while waiting for a bus on a sunny but windy Oslo day, I knew I must get the book. Getting into the book was even more of a delight because immediately, Miller starts off sharing that he had modest ambitions in getting back into reading but then could not stop. I could have written this myself: three years ago when I came out of an embarrassingly long non-reading coma, I thought 26 books was a reasonable goal for a year (even if I continue to say that it’s not about quantity – because it isn’t). My own journey is completely devoid of theme or goal, but the non-existent endpoint is… not being able to stop.

I did attempt a kind of theme last year – still limiting myself to 26 books (which I blew through within the first month of the year) – but insisting that they must be in non-English languages. The only reason I note this is because Miller starts off his own journey with Bulgakov‘s The Master and Margarita, which is a book I read in English translation for the first time over 20 years ago and have since reread and gifted copies of to all kinds of people. But the idea that I should attempt it in its original Russian crossed my mind more than once. I abandoned this idea quickly in favor of simpler Solzhenitsyn prose in tackling Russian. (Miller, incidentally, also reads Anna Karenina during this period of reviving his passion for reading, reveling in its “like the real world, only better” quality; it is one of those I am making my way through in the original – it’s just taking a long time.) I am not sure I will ever again have the wherewithal even to even think of Margarita in this way. Miller gets it right: the book is difficult and absurd, very difficult to dive right into and stick with, but with patience is transcendent. When he noted that he didn’t know what “Komsomol” was when he started reading, I realized that there is the additional layer of difficulty if one isn’t already ‘indoctrinated’ to the Soviet/Russian period and its institutions. I luckily had that going in, but would this have proved to be a barrier otherwise? I consider this as I think of all the people on whom I’ve forced this book. But, as Miller writes, those readers who follow through do not need the definitions and minutiae of institutions; this book endures because “words are our transport, our flight and our homecoming in one. Which you don’t get from Dan Brown.” So true.

In fact there are so many strange parallels in this book that it’s as though it’s an alternate version of what I could have written myself. From the travel to East Germany as the teenage human embodiment of the dour nature of the country itself to skipping Bukowski because it was the go-to for a certain type of male reader and, indeed, reading more than one (which I’ve done) would be a waste of time because they are like carbon copies of each other. In my case, strangely, I bought a bunch of Bukowski for an East German guy with whom I had a Russian class in college. Seems like a lot of crossed threads there. I actually ended the school year by buying books for my professor and the other person in my class – I just don’t remember which books I bought for them. It was years before I bothered to read Bukowski myself – I don’t mind being able to say I read him, but it’s still time I am not getting back.

It also delighted me to see that someone else is nerdy enough to write ‘fan mail’ to a writer. Miller wrote to Michel Houellebecq; I did so a couple of times last year, but not to the writers one would expect. I don’t engage much with bestsellers and mainstream/popular fiction (even if there is nothing at all wrong with it); even if I do, I don’t imagine that those writers need more praise piled on. No, instead, I wrote, for example, to a professor who studies teeth through the lens of evolutionary biology (I loved and learned so much from two books he wrote) to profess my fascination for his work/field; he wrote back thanking me because I guess, as he wrote, I made his day. I don’t imagine that such diligent and passionate researchers get much recognition or fan letters from outside their discipline, so I was pleased to contribute that little bit because -seriously- TEETH!

And it further delighted me to read (bold text is mine), despite my own proclivity for the convenience of e-books (I still love the real thing so much more, even if I’ve mostly eschewed collecting them as I move from country to country):

I accept that this story illustrates that it is technically possible to buy a copy of Moby-Dick on what passes for the high street. It might also be advanced as further evidence of the adaptability of the book. But to me it demonstrates how marginal good books might become in the future. Surely Moby-Dick deserves to be something more than just a sliver of content on a screen? I feel much the same when I see books piled up on pallets in big-box stores, like crates of beer or charcoal briquettes, and I am shocked to be reminded that there is nothing intrinsically special about books unless we invest them with values other than ‘value’ and we create spaces in which to do it.

Reading is a broad church. But it is still a church.

Biggest disappointment (or hated/disliked)

The artificial endures. Living wears out.” –Black Dahlia, White RoseJoyce Carol Oates

I have already stated above that I hated my Joyce Carol Oates and Marquis de Sade readings. I read a lot of things this month that bored me (Bright Lights, Big City, for example), but nothing worth capturing here at any further length. Oh, no… I despised Chuck Palahniuk‘s Beautiful You; not that I expected otherwise. It was beyond stupid – felt like the scribblings of someone who thought maybe he could put one over on everyone. That is, let’s write something outlandish and exaggeratedly sophomoric and see if someone is dumb enough to publish it.

Bless the eyes and hands of experience

Standard

“If thought is really to find a basis in lived experience, it has to be free. The way to ensure this is to think other in the register of the same. As you construct yourself, imagine another yourself that will one day construct you in its turn. Such is my conception of spontaneity: the highest possible level of self-consciousness that is still inseparable from the self and from the world.” –The Revolution of Everyday Life, Raoul Vaneigem

I cannot look at a lifetime of previous experience and find anything but something to be grateful for. How I could find fault with, judge or castigate someone for the things that made him who he is now, brought him to this point, where he feels, breathes, walks, runs, lives, sleeps, fucks, eats, moves in this way that is so precisely tuned to the ‘he’ that I know now?

What we should…

“You should never fall in love. Love will bring you unhappiness. If you must love, let it be when you are older, after you are thirty.” –The Setting Sun, Osamu Dazai

“The presence of a noble nature, generous in its wishes, ardent in its charity, changes the lights for us: we begin to see things again in their larger, quieter masses, and to believe that we too can be seen and judged in the wholeness of our character.” –Middlemarch, George Eliot

Maybe the door has been opened, maybe my middle age has made my brain into mush. But we must use the time we have to absorb what is in books, to touch each other, to eat or revile coriander, to hear our voices reach each other and rise above the hubbub and cut through the chaotic din of our other lives to be able to say, do and be only the most uninhibited of things, to walk through the forest or along the river, to nurture and coax the best of each other, to lighten the dark path we each tread sometimes, to dare to be silly or mundane and find beauty in it, to watch a lone cat sit patiently and alert in the middle of an overgrown field before pouncing on its prey, to sing – however dumb we sound – songs that come into our heads, to fall in love (after 30 or even 40), to give and give and give until exhausted, sore and dizzy, to transform and be transformed. We can blink our eyes, and find suddenly that it is over.

Suffering is sweeter still

“but on days when I fear disappointment, I prefer to look on the dark side of things, it pulls me together and keeps me one step ahead of suffering” –So Much for that Winter, Dorthe Nors

And how sad that would be if we didn’t render our own off-key renditions of “Lover Man” while lying entangled in bed or let ourselves cry in the joy of simple closeness, in the tenderness and care of bringing a cup of coffee in the morning, or in the loss of some small thing we barely noticed when we had it, or in the beauty of how glossy and liquid fountain pen ink can look on a page (I noticed this most of all in a recent episode of American Gods – not at all surprised by the tantalizing visuals there). And how empty life could be if we (or I) only grabbed cheap ballpoint pens, cast books aside to watch Law & Order reruns, or as I was recently cautioned against doing – discarded the best person I ever knew just because I don’t know how to be with someone who is undamaged.

But where, indeed, does experience end and damage begin?

“It feels like nothing matters in our private universe.”

 

No more sunlight on lunches

Standard

When this year dawned, I gave up a lot of TV. Many know that I was basically addicted and was watching all kinds of shit. Sure, there were gems mixed in with the shit, but it was mostly… just shit. I cut way back, and in many ways have cut back on a lot of things while boosting the output/input of other things, such as reading books and aurally hoovering up a whole lot of music.

Also, apart from the increasingly rare lunch I spend working in an office environment, there is no lunchtable any more. No more lunchtable, no more lunches, no more lunchtable TV talk.

That said, there are still bits of TV-style content that seep in. Of late, Patriot, I Love Dick, Catastrophe, Goliath, Fargo, The Leftovers, Silicon Valley, The Americans, Better Call Saul, Bloodline … among a couple of other things, even American Gods, which I had no intention of watching since I have never read the book and did not have much interest in. Some of it has been quite entertaining but … on the whole, it’s not really for me any more.

Instead there is poetry and more poetry, and reading and re-reading “To Marina”, one of my long-time favorites, which I have now been reading and re-reading for as long as the 25 years the poet marvels at having passed in the poem itself. A poem that makes me think, makes me laugh, makes me wonder, makes me feel empty, makes me feel sad, makes me feel nostalgic, makes me feel imaginative and has been a part of my life, making me feel so many different things – and combinations of things – as my own life has changed.

To Marina
Kenneth Koch

So many convolutions and not enough simplicity!
When I had you to write to it
Was different. The quiet, dry Z
Leaped up to the front of the alphabet.
You sit, stilling your spoons
With one hand; you move them with the other.
Radio says, “God is a postmaster.”
You said, Zis is lawflee. And in the heat
Of writing to you I wrote simply. I thought
These are the best things I shall ever write
And have ever written. I thought of nothing but touching you
Thought of seeing you and, in a separate thought, of looking at you.
You were concentrated feeling and thought.
You were like the ocean
In which my poems were the swimming. I brought you
Earrings. You said, these are lawflee. We went
To some beach, where the sand was dirty. Just going in
To the bathing house with you drove me “out of my mind.”

It is wise to be witty. The shirt collar’s far away.
Men tramp up and down the city on this windy day.
I am feeling a-political as a shell
Brought off some fish. Twenty-one years
Ago I saw you and loved you still.
Still! It wasn’t plenty
Of time. Read Anatole France. Bored, a little. Read
Tolstoy, replaced and overcome. You read Stendhal.
I told you to. Where was replacement
Then? I don’t know. He shushed us back in to ourselves.
I used to understand

The highest excitement. Someone died
And you were distant. I went away
And made you distant. Where are you now? I see the chair
And hang onto it for sustenance. Good God how you kissed me
And I held you. You screamed
And I wasn’t bothered by anything. Was nearest you.

And you were so realistic
Preferring the Soviet Bookstore
To my literary dreams.
“You don’t like war,” you said
After reading a poem
In which I’d simply said I hated war
In a whole list of things. To you
It seemed a position, to me
It was all a flux, especially then.
I was in an
Unexpected situation.
Let’s take a walk
I wrote. And I love you as a sheriff
Searches for a walnut. And so unless
I’m going to see your face
Bien soon, and you said
You must take me away, and
Oh Kenneth
You like everything
To be pleasant. I was burning
Like an arch
Made out of trees.

I’m not sure we ever actually took a walk
We were so damned nervous. I was heading somewhere. And you had to
be
At an appointment, or else be found out! Illicit love!
It’s not a thing to think of. Nor is it when it’s licit!
It is too much! And it wasn’t enough. The achievement
I thought I saw possible when I loved you
Was that really achievement? Were you my
Last chance to feel that I had lost my chance?
I grew faint at your voice on the telephone.
Electricity and all colors were mine, and the tops of hills
And everything that breathes. That was a feeling. Certain
Artistic careers had not even started. And I
Could have surpassed them. I could have I think put the
Whole world under our feet. You were in the restaurant. It
Was Chinese. We have walked three blocks. Or four blocks. It is New
York
In nineteen fifty-three. Nothing has as yet happened
That will ever happen and will mean as much to me. You smile, and turn
your head.
What rocketing there was in my face and in my head
And bombing everywhere in my body
I loved you I knew suddenly
That nothing had meant anything like you
I must have hoped (crazily) that something would
As if thinking you were the person I had become.

My sleep is beginning to be begun. And the sheets were on the bed.
A clock rang a bird’s song rattled into my typewriter.
I had been thinking about songs which were very abstract.
It was really a table. Now, the telephone. Hello, what?
What is my life like now? Engaged, studying and looking around
The library, teaching—I took it rather easy
A little too easy—we went to the ballet
Then dark becomes the light (blinding) of the next eighty days
Orchestra cup become As beautiful as an orchestra or a cup, and
Locked climbs becomes If we were locked, well not quite, rather
Oh penniless could I really die, and I understood everything
Which before was running this way and that in my head
I saw titles, volumes, and suns I felt the hot
Pressure of your hands in that restaurant
To which, along with glasses, plates, lamps, lusters,
Tablecloths, napkins, and all the other junk
You added my life for it was entirely in your hands then—
My life Yours, My Sister Life of Pasternak’s beautiful title
My life without a life, my life in a life, my life impure
And my life pure, life seen as an entity
One death and a variety of days
And only on life.

I wasn’t ready
For you.

I understood nothing
Seemingly except my feelings
You were whirling
In your life
I was keeping
Everything in my head
An artist friend’s apartment
Five flights up the
Lower East Side nineteen
Fifty-something I don’t know
What we made love the first time I
Almost died I had never felt
That way it was like being stamped on in Hell
It was roses of Heaven
My friends seemed turned to me to empty shell

On the railroad train’s red velvet back
You put your hand in mine and said
“I told him”
Or was it the time after that?
I said Why did you
Do that you said I thought
It was over. Why Because you were so
Nervous of my being there it was something I thought

I read Tolstoy. You said
I don’t like the way it turns out (Anna
Karenina) I had just liked the strength
Of the feeling you thought
About the end. I wanted
To I don’t know what never leave you
Five flights up the June
Street empties of fans, cups, kites, cops, eats, nights, no
The night was there
And something like air I love you Marina
Eighty-five days
Four thousand three hundred and sixty-
Two minutes all poetry was changed
For me what did I do in exchange
I am selfish, afraid you are
Overwhelmingly parade, back, sunshine, dreams
Later thousands of dreams

You said
You make me feel nawble (noble). I said
Yes. I said
To nothingness, This is all poems. Another one said (later)
That is so American. You were Russian
You thought of your feelings, one said, not of her,
Not of the real situation. But my feelings were a part,
They were the force of the real situation. Truer to say I thought
Not of the whole situation
For your husband was also a part
And your feelings about your child were a part
And all my other feelings were a part. We
Turned this way and that, up-
Stairs then down
Into the streets.
Did I die because I didn’t stay with you?
Or what did I lose of my life? I lose
You. I put you
In everything I wrote.

I used that precious material I put it in forms
Also I wanted to break down the forms
Poetry was a real occupation
To hell with the norms, with what is already written
Twenty-nine in love finds pure expression
Twenty-nine years you my whole life’s digression
Not taken and Oh Kenneth
Everything afterwards seemed nowhere near
What I could do then in several minutes—
I wrote,
“I want to look at you all day long
Because you are mine.”

I am twenty-nine, pocket flap folded
And I am smiling I am looking out at a world that
I significantly re-created from inside
Out of contradictory actions and emotions. I look like a silly child that
Photograph that year—big glasses, unthought-of clothes,
A suit, slight mess in general, cropped hair. And someone liked me,
Loved me a lot, I think. And someone else had, you had too. I was
Undrenched by the tears I’d shed later about this whole thing when
I’d telephone you I’d be all nerves, though in fact
All life was a factor and all my nerves were in my head. I feel
Peculiar. Or I feel nothing. I am thinking about this poem. I am thinking
about your raincoat,
I am worried about the tactfulness,
About the truth of what I say.

I am thinking about my standards for my actions
About what they were
You raised my standards for harmony and for happiness so much
And, too, the sense of a center
Which did amazing things for my taste
But my taste for action? For honesty, for directness in behavior?
I believe I simply never felt that anything could go wrong
This was abject stupidity
I also was careless in how I drove then and in what I ate
And drank it was easier to feel that nothing could go wrong
I had those feelings. I
Did not those things. I was involved in such and such
A situation, artistically and socially. We never spent a night
Together it is the New York of
Aquamarine sunshine and the Loew’s Theater’s blazing swing of light
In the middle of the day

Let’s take a walk
Into the world
Where if our shoes get white
With snow, is it snow, Marina,
Is it snow or light?
Let’s take a walk

Every detail is everything in its place (Aristotle). Literature is a cup
And we are the malted. The time is a glass. A June bug comes
And a carpenter spits on a plane, the flowers ruffle ear rings.
I am so dumb-looking. And you are so beautiful.

Sitting in the Hudson Tube
Walking up the fusky street
Always waiting to see you
You the original creation of all my You, you the you
In every poem the hidden one whom I am talking to
Worked at Bamberger’s once I went with you to Cerutti’s
Bar—on Madison Avenue? I held your hand and you said
Kenneth you are playing with fire. I said
Something witty in reply.
It was the time of the McCarthy trial
Hot sunlight on lunches. You squirted
Red wine into my mouth.
My feelings were like a fire my words became very clear
My psyche or whatever it is that puts together motions and emotions
Was unprepared. There was a good part
And an alarmingly bad part which didn’t correspond—
No letters! No seeming connection! Your slim pale hand
It actually was, your blondness and your turning-around-to-me look
Good-bye Kenneth.

No, Marina, don’t go
And what had been before would come after
Not to be mysterious we’d be together make love again
It was the wildest thing I’ve done
I can hardly remember it
It has gotten by now
So mixed up with losing you
The two almost seemed in some way the same. You
Wore something soft—angora? Cashmere?
I remember that it was black, You turned around
And on such a spring day which went on and on and on
I actually think I felt that I could keep
The strongest of all feelings contained inside me
Producing endless emotional designs.

With the incomparable feeling of rising and of being like a banner
Twenty seconds worth twenty-five years
With feeling noble extremely mobile and very free
With Taking a Walk With You, West Wind, In Love With You, and
Yellow Roses
With pleasure I felt my leg muscles and my brain couldn’t hold
With the Empire State Building the restaurant your wrist bones with
Greenwich Avenue
In nineteen fifty-one with heat humidity a dog pissing with neon
With the feeling that at last
My body had something to do and so did my mind

You sit
At the window. You call
Me, across Paris,
Amsterdam, New
York. Kenneth!
My Soviet
Girlhood. My
Spring, summer
And fall. Do you
Know you have
Missed some of them?
Almost all. I am
Waiting and I
Am fading I
Am fainting I’m
In a degrading state
Of inactivity. A ball
Rolls in the gutter. I have
Two hands to
Stop it. I am
A flower I pick
The vendor his
Clothes getting up
Too early and
What is it makes this rose
Into what is more fragrant than what is not?

I am stunned I am feeling tortured
By “A man of words and not a man of deeds”

I was waiting in a taxicab
It was white letters in white paints it was you
Spring comes, summer, then fall
And winter. We really have missed
All of that, whatever else there was
In those years so sanded by our absence.
I never saw you for as long as half a day

You were crying outside the bus station
And I was crying—
I knew that this really was my life—
I kept thinking of how we were crying
Later, when I was speaking, driving, walking,
Looking at doorways and colors, mysterious entrances
Sometimes I’d be pierced as by a needle
Sometimes be feverish as from a word
Books closed and I’d think
I can’t read this book, I threw away my life
These held on to their lives. I was
Excited by praise from anyone, startled by criticism, always hating it
Traveling around Europe and being excited
It was all in reference to you
And feeling I was not gradually forgetting
What your temples and cheekbones looked like
And always with this secret

Later I thought that what I had done was reasonable
It may have been reasonable
I also thought that I saw what had appealed to me
So much about you, the way you responded
To everything your excitement about
Me, I had never seen that. And the fact
That you were Russian, very mysterious, all that I didn’t know
About you—and you didn’t know
Me, for I was as strange to you as you were to me.
You were like my first trip to France you had
Made no assumptions. I could be
Clearly and Passionately and
Nobly (as you’d said) who I was—at the outer limits of my life
Of my life as my life could be
Ideally. But what about the dark part all this lifted
Me out of? Would my bad moods, my uncertainties, my
Distrust of people I was close to, the
Twisty parts of my ambition, my
Envy, all have gone away? And if
They hadn’t gone, what? For didn’t I need
All the strength you made me feel I had, to deal
With the difficulties of really having you?
Where could we have been? But I saw so many new possibilities
That it made me rather hate reality
Or I think perhaps I already did
I didn’t care about the consequences
Because they weren’t “poetic” weren’t “ideal”

And oh well you said we walk along
Your white dress your blue dress your green
Blouse with sleeves then one without
Sleeves and we are speaking
Of things but not of very much because underneath it
I am raving I am boiling I am afraid
You ask me Kenneth what are you thinking
If I could say
It all then I thought if I could say
Exactly everything and have it still be as beautiful
Billowing over, riding over both our doubts
Some kind of perfection and what did I actually
Say? Marina it’s late. Marina
It’s early. I love you. Or else, What’s this street?
You were the perfection of my life
And I couldn’t have you. That is, I didn’t.
I couldn’t think. I wrote, instead. I would have had
To think hard, to figure everything out
About how I could be with you,
Really, which I couldn’t do
In those moments of permanence we had
As we walked along.

We walk through the park in the sun. It is the end.
You phone me. I send you a telegram. It
Is the end. I keep
Thinking about you, grieving about you. It is the end. I write
Poems about you, to you. They
Are no longer simple. No longer
Are you there to see every day or
Every other or every third or fourth warm day
And now it has been twenty-five years
But those feelings kept orchestrating I mean rehearsing
Rehearsing in my and tuning up
While I was doing a thousand other things, the band
Is ready, I am over fifty years old and there’s no you—
And no me, either, not as I was then,
When it was the Renaissance
Filtered through my nerves and weakness
Of nineteen fifty-four or fifty-three,
When I had you to write to, when I could see you
And it could change.