in the hundreds

Standard

When 2017 began I set out to read 26 books. I thought this was ambitious because I had essentially abandoned reading for most of the previous ten years. It must have been sometime in the spring, after topping well over 100 books, that I realized I would certainly read a record number of books (record for me, that is). I didn’t consciously set out until later in the year to finish 365 books but crossed that threshold in early-mid December, meaning that I did in the end get to read somewhere between 393 and 400 books (Goodreads, which I used to keep track of the reading, was a bit fidgety and unreliable in recording dates).

I’m a bit stunned by having read so much – feeling some of the material branded on my brain permanently, fresh in my mind since early in the year, while some things were almost forgettable. But it was, as I told a former colleague, enriching. It might not be the greatest accomplishment of the year, and it is certainly the quietest, but it gave each day a new meaning, a fresh story, a new palette on which language was painted in wholly different ways, and of course made, as Firewall likes to say, every day into a school day. In a good way, of course.

I was asked to select my favorite from among these books, but this is impossible. I read from such a wide breadth of topics and disciplines, from literary and scientific materials from around the world, that it could not even be done to say that one single book stood above the others. But among those that I loved, those that I didn’t want to end, those that I learned the most from, those that confounded or stayed with me the longest – making me turn my thoughts to them again and again – here is the rough list in no particular order:

*Advice for a Young Investigator – Santiago Ramón y Cajal

*The Bone Clocks – David Mitchell
Was not sure I would include this because I had mixed feelings, although by the end I was convinced/moved.

*The Master Butchers Singing Club – Louise Erdrich
Another one I was not sure I would include. I read most of Erdrich’s books this year and most were middle of the road, but this one stood out for some reason.

*The Yiddish Policeman’s Union – Michael Chabon
I read a bunch of Chabon and just like his style (even though it can be quite different in all his writing) and could recommend anything he has written, but this was somehow… the one I liked most.

*Time and Materials – Robert Hass
Poetry, which is not for everyone. This was superlative

*Edwin Morgan: Collected Poems – Edwin Morgan
More poetry; discovered Glaswegian Edwin Morgan this year and loved

*Reality is Not What It Seems: The Elusive Structure of the Universe and the Journey to Quantum Gravity – Carlo Rovelli

*Seven Brief Lessons on Physics – Carlo Rovelli

*Go, Went, Gone – Jenny Erpenbeck
Possibly overlooked by many; reminds me slightly of the film The Visitor. Deals with refugee crisis/asylum seekers in Germany with some interesting looks back at how things changed when Germany reunified

*Catch-22 – Joseph Heller
An old one I should have read ages ago but only got around to now. Enjoyed the hilarious absurdity

*The Noonday Demon – Andrew Solomon
A long book on depression – not sure why I started reading it but it was engrossing

*Evolution’s Bite: A Story of Teeth, Diet, and Human Origins – Peter S Ungar
Part of my obsession with teeth this year

*Angle of Repose – Wallace Stegner
A surprising and moving book

*If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler – Italo Calvino
A strange one – but the complexity of Calvino’s style makes me want to read everything he writes (he is listed again later/below)

*Broken April – Ismail Kadare
Albanian book that deals with the Kanun/blood feuds, etc.

*Secondhand Time: An Oral history of the Fall of the Soviet Union – Svetlana Alexievich

*The Solitude of Prime Numbers – Paolo Giordano
Surprising – not sure why this book (fiction, Italian) stuck with me – perhaps the descriptions of how people fool others and themselves living a version of themselves that cannot possibly be true

*Pretty much anything by Naomi Klein, of which I read all – very timely and important

*A General Theory of Oblivion – Jose Eduardo Agualusa
An unusual one from Angola

*Tram 83 – Fiston Mwanza Mujila
An interesting one from Congo

*The Sellout – Paul Beatty
Probably one of my very favorite ones this year

*A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara
Engrossing – just when you think things cannot get worse or more heartbreaking, they do. As my colleague put it “emotional porn” – a form of blackmail

*The Revolution of Everyday Life – Raoul Vaneigem
Abstract-ish philosophy but somehow resonated when I read it

*All the Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr
Fiction

*Before the Fall – Noah Hawley
Fiction from the guy who brought us the TV version of Fargo

*The Emperor of All Maladies – Siddhartha Mukherjee
A book on cancer – not uplifting but fascinating

*Karaoke Culture – Dubravka Ugresic
Because I pretty much love all of Ugresic’s observational essay work

*Teeth: The Story of Beauty, Inequality, and the Struggle for Oral Health in America – Mary Otto
More teeth!

*Invisible Cities – Italo Calvino
More Calvino, whom I have quoted to death this year

*Pretty much any poetry book of works by Polish poet Adam Zagajewski, Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai and Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer

*The Book of Disquiet – Fernando Pessoa
This is one that kept me thinking all year long and to which I will return repeatedly

*A Generation of Sociopaths: How the Baby Boomers Betrayed America – Bruce Cannon Gibney
Brewing the Baby Boomer hate…

*The Sympathizer – Viet Thanh Nguyen
Another of my favorite works of fiction this year

2018…

My goal, again, is to read 26 books. The trick this time, though, is that none of them can be in English. I can read books in English, but they won’t count toward the goal.

Writing at turmoil’s gunpoint

Standard

“We’re doing this thing on my timeline. My way.”
He looked at her with avuncular condescension. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Tired of listening to other voices, or writing in them, she walked out.

“My story, Sir Pen, is, to put it briefly: I’m a blank sheet of paper that no one will write on.” -from “Peer Gynt”, Henrik Ibsen

“But in these theories there always remained a void that no one knew how to fill, a zone of darkness between cause and effect; how does one arrive at the written page? By what route is the soul or history or society or the subconscious transformed into a series of black lines on a white page?” –The Uses of Literature, Italo Calvino

Turmoil sharpens syntax and diction, makes the willingness to hunt for the right words acute – heightens the senses like a hunter on the trail of his prey. You will know what I mean if you write when you feel anguish, pain or even the murky mist of questioning. When you revisit those distress-filled writings, you might not find answers, but you may find keen edges on your prose that you don’t find when you’re writing without emotional gags and bindings. It’s odd to consider that turmoil, which can render us helpless and not free, gives us the freedom of discipline (which sounds contradictory). Turmoil forces us to write, and ties our hands and our minds to make us only write about what it wants.

“For me, to write is self-deprecating, and yet I can’t quit doing it. Writing is like the drug I abhor and keep taking, the addiction I despise and depend on.”The Book of Disquiet, Fernando Pessoa

On the other hand, for a person so ‘haunted’ by the demand to write, only by writing through it can you make sense of your experience.

“By telling stories, you objectify your own experience. You separate it from yourself. You pin down certain truths. You make up others. You start sometimes with an incident that truly happened, like the night in the shit field, and you carry it forward by inventing incidents that did not in fact occur but that nonetheless help to clarify and explain.” –The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien

You may go back, as suggested, and see well-chosen words and sharp edges, but what you read might not fill you with the glee of someone who has written superlative, quality prose. No, in fact, it will probably read as self-pitying, naive, maudlin, even silly.

“There is no separating yourself from the things you make, he thought. If you are a cesspool, what else can your work be except shit?” –Before the Fall, Noah Hawley

You’re not doing it because you think it will be a masterpiece; you don’t even imagine anyone will ever see it.

You nevertheless were held hostage to the need to get it out.

The single woman: Alone with strangers

Standard

“I started to think about how people say that the trouble with two strangers getting married isn’t necessarily that the woman has to marry someone she doesn’t know but that she has to learn to love someone she doesn’t know…But I think it must be easier for a girl to marry someone she doesn’t know, because the more you get to know men, the harder it is to love them.” –Strangeness in My Mind, Orhan Pamuk

“But how was one to be an adult? Was couplehood truly the only appropriate option? (But then, a sole option was no option at all.)” –A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara

Changing space and place

In writing an earlier post, The silent woman, about being middle-aged, or just being a woman who is trying to make her voice heard in the world we live in (it’s easy for me to forget that this is difficult, but then the news turns up some corporate jackass says women talk too much or one of the only hard-charging questioners, Senator Kamala Harris, was repeatedly interrupted by men at Jeff Sessions’s session in the hot seat at recent US Senate Intelligence Committee hearings), it started off with my thinking about the choices we, as women, have. The choices I, as an individual have – as a woman, as a middle-aged woman, in the position, station and circumstances in which I find myself now. I am fortunate; I cannot complain. I may always have been somewhere near invisible, but I’ve oddly been able to do most things my own way. I have never been railing against a system that is stacked against me. I run afoul of many of society’s expectations and have never cared what other people thought.

So when considering a woman’s place, a woman’s ‘requirement’ to marry or to bend to the conventions of society, I have never felt bound to these ‘norms’. Many of Erica Jong’s assertions in Fear of Flying, which may well have been the norm in 1973 (and in many cases remain so today), were thus memos I shredded in favor of doing whatever I wanted.

She wrote:

“Solitude is un-American. It may be condoned in a man—especially if he is a “glamorous bachelor” who “dates starlets” during a brief interval between marriages.”

Bullshit. Solitude may well be un-American, maybe even inhuman. But I prefer solitude and embraced it.

She also wrote:

“…be alone as a result of abandonment, not choice. And she is treated that way: as a pariah. There is simply no dignified way for a woman to live alone.”

Perhaps as a function or fact of the time, this was true. But I failed to embrace this.

She further wrote:

“Her friends, her family, her fellow workers never let her forget that her husbandlessness, her childlessness—her selfishness, in short—is a reproach to the American way of life.”

This is also not something that remains intact as fact today. Yes, a few people regard me as selfish for my lack of marriage and lack of children, and I occasionally confront the pity people direct toward me for these things I lack. But I understand in equal measure the envy that people also feel that I am free, and always have been. It’s a mixed reaction going both ways.

But then it’s not all about me. I am fully aware that I can only speak for myself and my own rather non-linear and unique experience. What Jong experienced and wrote about 40+ years ago is something different from what we have today, even if we can all cite 1,000 moments each day that we individually experience or witness more of the bitter sameness of obliquely discriminatory behavior. It is easy to dismiss what Jong, mid-20th century feminists or even my older female colleagues when I first joined the corporate workforce write or say as passé because many of us no longer experience the overt discrimination they exposed and fought against. But we see evidence every day, often not overt, but nevertheless pervasive, that there is still plenty of need for feminism and awareness-building. For society and for individuals and their choices.

Feminism, though it can be individual, is largely not about an individual perspective or experience. Each individual may need to define what feminism is for her, but on a more universal level, we are all responsible for making the world safe for women to make those self-determinations. Even if that choice is to follow a prescribed societal view of her own place and space. That means that sometimes we are not going to be on the same page just because we are women, e.g. some of the most vocal anti-choice activists are women; Donald Trump would not have become US president if it weren’t for white women in the United States. Do I agree with those women’s views? No. But do I feel that their right to believe what they believe is valid? Yes, insofar as it does not infringe on others’ rights (which, unfortunately, it often does).

Keeping pace: The marriage question – But who am I, and who are you? Who knows?

Many of Jong’s suppositions are tied to the search for love and the ultimate ‘subjugation’ of marriage. But most of us are not required to marry or pair off for material reasons or other obligations. Yet we do. By choice.

How, then, with all these communication-based minefields in our paths do we reach a point that it makes sense to us to marry? Who and where are we as individuals that we think, Yes, this makes perfect sense? I get it – feelings and lust and all these other heady things cloud our logical judgment. It’s not that marriage and companionship are wrong or troublesome. They can be pleasurable, supportive and all kinds of other good stuff. But what is the need, at a certain point? Maybe it is not a question of need any more, unlike for example, the scenes described in Fear of Flying:

“Damned clever, I thought, how men had made life so intolerable for single women that most would gladly embrace even bad marriages instead. Almost anything had to be an improvement on hustling for your own keep at some low-paid job and fighting off unattractive men in your spare time while desperately trying to ferret out the attractive ones.”

No, instead of ‘need’, I see a few clear paths people take. Among them (and these are only examples):

Those who don’t find a voice or identity, so seek a voice in another. One is essentially alone with a stranger – but that stranger isn’t the person she has coupled up with, but herself. And in some cases (leaving aside the equality of Scandinavian countries, which is atypical of the rest of the world), it is the preference. She may want to subsume her half-baked identity in the identity of another. (“But I have lost my being in so many beings” -Sophia de Mello Breyner.) Maybe she still, in this day and age (and again, outside Sweden this stuff may still be true), buys into the myths:

“What all the ads and all the whoreoscopes seemed to imply was that if only you were narcissistic enough, if only you took proper care of your smells, your hair, your boobs, your eyelashes, your armpits, your crotch, your stars, your scars, and your choice of Scotch in bars—you would meet a beautiful, powerful, potent, and rich man who would satisfy every longing, fill every hole, make your heart skip a beat (or stand still), make you misty, and fly you to the moon (preferably on gossamer wings), where you would live totally satisfied forever. And the crazy part of it was that even if you were clever, even if you spent your adolescence reading John Donne and Shaw, even if you studied history or zoology or physics and hoped to spend your life pursuing some difficult and challenging career—you still had a mind full of all the soupy longings that every high-school girl was awash in.” –Fear of Flying

Then there are those who find someone who loves and cherishes the voice and identity she has cultivated for herself. Something akin to two complete and fulfilled people trying to enhance their lives with the presence of someone else who, by all accounts, understands and appreciates them in a way that no one else does. Illusion? Maybe. After all, understanding may be an illusion:

“What elaborate misconceptions form other people’s understanding of us! The joy of being understood by others cannot be had by those who want to be understood, for they are too complex to be understood; and simple people, who can be understood by others, never have the desire to be understood. Nobody achieves anything … Nothing is worth doing.” –The Book of Disquiet, Fernando Pessoa

The single misunderstanding

Perhaps these pursuits are doomed to be fruitless, but we can delude ourselves. Quite happily, maybe for a lifetime. We may never understand another and maybe we do not need to, completely, to find a kind of fulfillment in another.

“…is always myself that I seek in other people—my enrichment, my fulfilment. Once everyone grasps this, the logic of ‘every man for himself’, carried to its logical conclusion, will be transformed into the logic of ‘all for each’.” –The Revolution of Everyday Life, Raoul Vaneigem

And further, we may not discover or know ourselves, but fool ourselves that we have; we may not truly connect with another – because we are not really listening, not really seeing, but marry anyway, probably blind, often miserable, perhaps someday concluding that we are marrying strangers, or living with the stranger that is ourself, or something similar to what Pessoa cautions:

“Have you ever considered, beloved Other, how invisible we all are to each other? Have you ever thought about how little we know each other? We look at each other without seeing. We listen to each other and hear only a voice inside ourself. The words of others are mistakes of our hearing, shipwrecks of our understanding. How confidently we believe in our meanings of other people’s words. We hear death in words they speak to express sensual bliss. We read sensuality and life in words they drop from their lips without the slightest intention of being profound.” -Fernando Pessoa

where the streets have no name

Standard

“I’m tired of the street, but no, I’m not tired of it – life is nothing but streets.” –Fernando Pessoa

Streets
Henrik Nordbrandt

Loves that ended long ago:

Sometimes you meet them in the street
sometimes you meet them in dreams.

When you meet them in the street, they resemble dreams
when you meet them in the dreams, they resemble streets

streets where half the houses are empty
because you don’t remember whose faces

appear in the darkness behind the windows.

Original in Danish:

Gader

Forelskelser, overstået for længe siden:

En gang imellem møder man dem på gaden
en gang imellem møder man dem I drømme.

Når man møder dem på gaden, ligner de drømme
når man møder dem I drømme, ligner de gader

gader, hvor halvdelen af husene star tome
fordi man ikke husker, hvis ansigter det er

som kommer til syne I mørket bag ruderne.

I hold no truck with your burning my goat

Standard

Friday, I do believe, may have been a/the sobriety anniversary for someone I know/knew. At least that’s what my memory started telling me on Thursday – or actually Wednesday – while walking in central Oslo passing some of the things I had seen with him the last time I wandered through the city center. All those hi-fi stores – I will never understand how they all stay in business. And there was even a semi-sung rendition of “Just Like Christmas” by Low. Strange how far away all of that, and even winter itself, feels. Things that happen in the permanently dusky, fictive period that is December/holidays/early new year are like that: they happened but take on an almost invented quality later when looking back.

Yes, these spring days in cold but sunny Oslo: This time it was a work dinner (at a restaurant that seemed to serve little, other than ceviche). I winced my way through the whole day, hobbling through a good 28 waking hours by the end of it, despite feeling a kind of searing pain surging wildly in much of my body. I, however, was more annoyed at the complaints I voiced and the visible indications of pain I showed than with the pain itself. (Back pain, which has been on and off for weeks, had abated but came roaring onto the scene again after an ill-advised long drive coupled with other stuff.)

This drummed up different thoughts, none of which were linked.

For example, I wondered how one comes to realize s/he is an alcoholic in a country and culture that is technically full of them? Where is the line?

As David Sedaris writes: “Turn down a drink in the United States, and people get the message without your having to explain. ‘Oh,’ they say, ashamed of themselves for presuming otherwise. ‘Right. I should probably… quit too.’ In Europe, though, you’re not an alcoholic unless you’re living half-naked on the street, drinking antifreeze from a cast-off shoe. Anything shy of this is just ‘fun-loving’ or ‘rascally’. Cover your glass in France or Germany — even worse, in England — and in the voice of someone who has been personally affronted, your host will ask why you’re not drinking.” (from When You Are Engulfed in Flames)

I thought of a colleague who kept using the word “pivot” but pronounced it “PIE-vot”. The kind of guy who suffers from a kind of Napoleon complex, driven by a must-boast, one-up, must-be-right, I-was-there(-first) syndrome – but luckily only at first (he has to mark his territory when you meet him) because eventually this gives way to a smart, sarcastic personality that is also warm, competent and insightful. I recalled one of his humbler moments, “I fucked up. And from the fuck-ups of our lives, we learn a lot. Immense amounts.” Or another colleague (although that implies there is something collegial or cooperative about our working together) who said, “Let’s not rewrite the wheel.” What?

I remembered also all those times people said things to me that smacked of other motives than what they thought they were transparently offering, betraying true intentions that lurked just beneath the surface. Much like a child who draws attention to his transgression before there is ever any suspicion aroused. The, “Oh, I might have this Mexican woman move in as my new roommate. But she’s not my type or anything; I am not attracted to her.” Hmm. Did anyone say you were? But you just showed your hand, friend. Or, “Nothing happened. I just got her phone number because she has the right look for my photography.” Um, okay. All the things that illuminate without lights.

But then, just as quickly, the mind shifts to asking what the difference is between ceviche and poke. Or to figuring out if I can finish reading all 13 books I have going right now before the end of April. Or to how expressions get muddled – the aforementioned “rewrite the wheel” or, my favorite flubs from Mr Firewall (of which there are many), who at least can laugh at himself first and longest, saying “burns my goat” instead of “gets my goat” and “tans my hide”.

Many thoughts but nothing too coherent – that’s how it goes in the delirium of too little sleep. Often it comes back to Pessoa:

“All that was lost, all that should have been sought, all that was obtained and fulfilled by mistake, all that we loved and lost and then, after losing it and loving it for having lost it, realized we never loved; all that we believed we were thinking when we were feeling; all the memories we took for emotions” –Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet

Photo by Medena Rosa

Eddig vendég

Standard

“The cause of my profound sense of incompatibility with others is, I believe, that most people think with their feelings, whereas I feel with my thoughts. For the ordinary man, to feel is to live, and to think is to know how to live. For me, to think is to live, and to feel is merely food for thought.” –Fernando Pessoa

Guests in town, unable to write anything too thoughtful but realized I never posted a whole thing about Fernando Pessoa despite constantly citing him.

Unfinished Pessoa: “The monotony of everything is merely the monotony of myself”

No plot, unfinished, beautiful observations, ramblings and self-conscious passages filled with self-doubt and aching humanity. Even unfinished and unpolished, the aimlessness of his work strikes a chord. I’ve never found anything that amounts to the internal ramblings of an introvert to be particularly readable, but in Pessoa, I’ve found the exception.

Has anything come so close to describing such a range of human feelings – the deepest sense of understanding the world and its nothingness and our nothingness within it at the same time as embracing a strange, but sad, soulfulness? (He might disagree, were he able.) Pessoa’s unfinished and scattered The Book of Disquiet reminded me of myself and my own scattered thinking, reminded me so much of others and their even more scattered thinking (and battles with self-esteem despite the bulwark of their formidable intellects). The sense of inner disquiet, the sense of always wanting to flee but not knowing from what (Anna Swir’s – paraphrasing here – “I envy you – you can leave me any time but I can’t leave myself):

“…envy everybody for not being me. Since this always seemed to me like the most impossible of all impossibilities, it’s what I yearned for every day, and despaired of in every sad moment.” (Again like Swir: you are not only not me – you can also leave me!)

But also knowing leaving yourself is futile because no place in the world will be able to give you what your own soul cannot:

“What can China give me that my soul hasn’t already given me? And if my soul can’t give it to me, how will China give it to me? For it’s with my soul that I’ll see China, if I ever see it. I could go and seek riches in the Orient, but not the riches of the soul, because I am my soul’s riches, and I am where I am, with or without the Orient. Travel is for those who cannot feel.”

“There are basically only two things in our earthly experience: the universal and the particular. To describe the universal is to describe what is common to all human souls and to all human experience”

“Eternal tourists of ourselves, there is no landscape but what we are. We possess nothing, for we don’t even possess ourselves. We have nothing because we are nothing. What hand will I reach out, and to what universe? The universe isn’t mine: it’s me.”

He observes; he complains/criticizes; he lets his dreaming soar but reins it in, finding it tiresome; he complains some more – strikingly bold in his prose but timid in existing in the world outside his own mind and words. Everyone else is stupid but happy, and he can’t help but revile and envy it at once while also knowing this is the multiplicity of one’s own being:

“Only one thing astonishes me more than the stupidity with which most people live their lives, and that’s the intelligence of this stupidity.” “Wise is the man who monotonizes his existence, for then each minor incident seems a marvel.”

“Monotonizing existence, so that it won’t be monotonous. Making daily life anodyne, so that the littlest thing will amuse.”

“Each of us is several, is many, is a profusion of selves. So that the self who disdains his surroundings is not the same as the self who suffers or takes joy in them. In the vast colony of our being there are many species of people who think and feel in different ways.”

“To live is to crochet according to a pattern we were given. But while doing it the mind is at liberty, and all prince charmings can stroll in their parks between one and another plunge of the hooked ivory needle. Needlework of things … Intervals … Nothing …”

“Life’s basic malady, that of being conscious, enters my body and makes me uneasy. To have no islands where those of us who are uncomfortable could go, no ancient garden paths reserved for those who’ve retreated into dreaming! To have to live and to act, however little; to have to physically touch because there are other, equally real people in life!”

“The intensity of my sensations has always been less than the intensity of my awareness of them. I’ve always suffered more from my consciousness that I was suffering than from the suffering of which I was conscious.”

Pessoa makes statements that our own ‘shadow selves’ might utter with some shame, and never in the wrong company, but he is unapologetic:

“I see humanity as merely one of Nature’s latest schools of decorative painting. I don’t distinguish in any fundamental way between a man and a tree, and I naturally prefer whichever is more decorative, whichever interests my thinking eyes. If the tree is more interesting to me than the man, I’m sorrier to see the tree felled than to see the man die. There are departing sunsets that grieve me more than the deaths of children. If I’m unfeeling, it’s so that I can feel.”

These words, devoid of sentimentality, nevertheless collide directly with my recent readings on creating one’s own reality, thoughts being things, the oneness of everything. How, indeed, is the tree – or the loss of it – any different from the loss of the man? Would we be somehow poorer for, say, wishing a swift death or karmic justice on American frat boys visiting Mexico chanting, “Build that wall!” while standing on the Mexican side, soaking in the Mexican sun and hospitality? (I realize I bring more ire to this argument than Pessoa’s dispassionate expression of preference. But, in relating this tale to someone, I offered similar disenchanted but detached twinned apathy-hope that these frat-asses might ‘disappear’ in Mexico. Can you be apathetic and hopeful at the same time?)

“Life is whatever we conceive it to be. For the farmer who considers his field to be everything, the field is an empire. For a Caesar whose empire is still not enough, the empire is a field.”

“How many Caesars I’ve been, but not the real ones. I’ve been truly imperial while dreaming, and that’s why I’ve never been anything.”

Expectation and the value of nothing

Standard

“Expectations carry the day, causing us to ignore contradictory data. We speak in conversations in incomplete thoughts and sentences but we do not perceive it that way. Oral conversation is full of holes, but we don’t hear it that way. If we did, it would be quite disruptive. It is usually efficient to perceive in terms of our expectations. On the other hand, it disguises just how much we actively share what we perceive to fit our image of what is there to be perceived.” – Awakening Your Psychic Powers

I think (and write) a lot about the concept of expectation – but what exactly is it?

We all seem to have an understanding of what ‘expectation’ means. We expect something to happen, to receive something, and there is a level of trust implied in that expectation because, as I have written elsewhere, expectation is on one end of the spectrum and hope is on the other. On both ends, some action or object is ‘promised’ – it’s just that with expectation, we have a stronger sense or assumption, or trust, that we will experience or receive the promised thing. With hope, it’s more distant, just a possibility, and often much more unrealistic. Is that how everyone perceives these concepts? Is expectation always in the “likely, unless…” (sometimes with caveats) column while hope resides usually in the “unlikely” column?

Sometimes it’s practical: things go as expected… until they don’t. And you wonder why. Promise theory aims to get to the root of some of these issues. Even if it won’t solve everything, it is an interesting enough concept to delve into briefly (with an handy animated video, no less!):

“No matter how good the plans or how detailed the instructions our expectations about the world have limitations. Our information is incomplete.

One answer to the question is that the world has both remarkable predictability but also maddening uncertainty. But that’s not helpful.”

Can we immunize against uncertainty?

“What did you expect?”

From Calvino’s Invisible Cities: ““I speak and speak,” Marco says, “but the listener retains only the words he is expecting. The description of the world to which you lend a benevolent ear is one thing; the description that will go the rounds of the groups of stevedores and gondoliers on the street outside my house the day of my return is another; and yet another, that which I might dictate late in life, if I were taken prisoner by Genoese pirates and put in irons in the same cell with a writer of adventure stories. It is not the voice that commands the story: it is the ear.”” “At times I feel your voice is reaching me from far away, while I am prisoner of a gaudy and unlivable present, when all forms of human society have reached an extreme of their cycle and there is no imagining what new forms they may assume. And I hear, from your voice, the invisible reasons which make cities live, through which perhaps, once dead, they will come to life again.”

It’s funny when you’re immersed in something, especially with another person, and when something changes, that other person – almost like an amnesiac, or a cold operator who shuts everything down with emotionless precision, now outside the sphere of shared feeling or experience, forgets or misplaces what the connection once (possibly only in a limited or illusory way) offered to both people. Or when you are part of a project or a job or any activity. Expectation boils down to – to be successful – a give and take.

But failing that, in essence, we can always expect inconsistency, a lack of transparency and, most of all, contradictions, particularly where people and feeling are involved.

Is anyone better at juxtaposing the contradictions and our propensity for fooling ourselves than Pessoa? At our expectation and desire for the new but then being exhausted and annoyed by having to actually deal with the details and complications of the new?

“I reject real life for being a condemnation; I reject dreaming for being an easy way out. But my real life couldn’t be more banal and contemptible, and my dream life couldn’t be more constant and intense.”

“This is true in the whole gamut of love. In sexual love we seek our own pleasure via another body. In non-sexual love, we seek our own pleasure via our own idea. The masturbator may be abject, but in point of fact he’s the perfect logical expression of the lover. He’s the only one who doesn’t feign and doesn’t fool himself. The relations between one soul and another, expressed through such uncertain and variable things as shared words and proffered gestures, are strangely complex. The very act of meeting each other is a non-meeting. Two people say ‘I love you’ or mutually think it and feel it, and each has in mind a different idea, a different life, perhaps even a different colour or fragrance, in the abstract sum of impressions that constitute the soul’s activity.”

“The tedium of the forever new, the tedium of discovering – behind the specious differences we see in things and ideas – the unrelenting sameness of everything…” “…the stagnation of everything that lives just because it moves…”

“To love is to tire of being alone; it is therefore a cowardice, a betrayal of ourselves. (It’s exceedingly important that we not love).” Yes, even within ourselves. We long for love, sometimes to not be alone, but at the same time, feel as though that longing is a betrayal or that we have succumbed to a great weakness. (See the poem “Longing is the betrayal of oneself…” by Agneta Ara for a more poetic take…)

Expectation of superfluity

“this syndrome is a war that nearly every woman faces every day, a war within herself too, a belief in her superfluity, an invitation to silence…” –Men Explain Things to Me

We can also – almost always – expect mansplaining and sexism. It’s almost always a given, unintentional or overt. Rebecca Solnit has published two whole collections of essays on how half the world’s population expects the worst – expects to be silenced or talked over or had its concerns ignored, at best, or expects to be raped or killed, at worst.

In Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me, she pretty much hits all the nails right on the head:

“Yes, people of both genders pop up at events to hold forth on irrelevant things and conspiracy theories, but the out-and-out confrontational confidence of the totally ignorant is, in my experience, gendered. Men explain things to me, and other women, whether or not they know what they’re talking about. Some men.”

“…billions of women must be out there on this seven-billion-person planet being told that they are not reliable witnesses to their own lives, that the truth is not their property, now or ever.” “…And no man has ever apologized for explaining, wrongly, things that I know and they don’t.” “…Dude, if you’re reading this, you’re a carbuncle on the face of humanity and an obstacle to civilization. Feel the shame.” (Maybe I fell in love a little bit with this statement because I love starting statements with “dude” when I am at-the-end-of-my-rope frustrated and irritated.

“Think of how much more time and energy we would have to focus on other things that matter if we weren’t so busy surviving.”

Perhaps the remarkable thing about Solnit and her writing is that, despite describing the condition of – and expectation(s) – of, for and by women in society, she nevertheless explores the opposite end of the spectrum: hope. And why? Because, back to the principles of the aforementioned promise theory, of uncertainty:

“To me, the grounds for hope are simply that we don’t know what will happen next, and that the unlikely and the unimaginable transpire quite regularly. And that the unofficial history of the world shows that dedicated individuals and popular movements can shape history and have, though how and when we might win and how long it takes is not predictable. Despair is a form of certainty, certainty that the future will be a lot like the present or will decline from it; despair is a confident memory of the future, in Gonzalez’s resonant phrase. Optimism is similarly confident about what will happen. Both are grounds for not acting. Hope can be the knowledge that we don’t have that memory and that reality doesn’t necessarily match our plans; hope like creative ability can come from what the Romantic poet John Keats called Negative Capability.”

It is not blind hope, though. It, too, is informed by experience – the times we have ignored logic or signs to succumb to seeing only the reality we wanted – or expected – but if we were to marry the two, could we overcome the stumbling block of the ‘plan’ we can’t seem to abandon?:

“As I began writing this essay, I picked up a book on wilderness survival by Laurence Gonzalez and found in it this telling sentence: “The plan, a memory of the future, tries on reality to see if it fits.” His point is that when the two seem incompatible we often hang onto the plan, ignore the warnings reality offers us, and so plunge into trouble. Afraid of the darkness of the unknown, the spaces in which we see only dimly, we often choose the darkness of closed eyes, of obliviousness.”

“We are by nature optimists, if optimism means that we believe we see the world as it is. And under the influence of a plan, it’s easy to see what we want to see.”

The expected end

We expect death, but we hope it comes for us later, much later. But do we know what to expect within death? Is it, as I have asked before, just an expanse of nothingness forever?

What we do know, as William Empson writes in “Ignorance of Death“: death is “the trigger of the literary man’s biggest gun”. Too true – pondering its manifestations and meanings runs through everything. And yet, as Empson also wisely states, “Otherwise I feel very blank upon this topic,/And think that though important, and proper for anyone to bring up,/It is one that most people should be prepared to be blank upon.”

In Slaughterhouse Five it is: “At that moment, Billy’s high forehead is in the cross hairs of a high-powered laser gun. It is aimed at hm from the darkened press box. In the next moment, Billy Pilgrim is dead. So it goes.

So Billy experiences death for a while. It is simply violet light and a hum. There isn’t anybody else there. Not even Billy Pilgrim is there.

In Calvino’s Invisible Cities: “I thought: “Perhaps Adelma is the city where you arrive dying and where each finds again the people he has known. This means I, too, am dead.” And I also thought: “This means the beyond is not happy.””

In Pessoa: “I don’t mean the mystery of death, which I can’t begin to fathom, but the physical sensation of ceasing to live. Humanity is afraid of death, but indecisively. The normal man makes a good soldier in combat; the normal man, when sick or old, rarely looks with horror at the abyss of nothing, though he admits its nothingness. This is because he lacks imagination. And nothing is less worthy of a thinking man than to see death as a slumber. Why a slumber, if death doesn’t resemble sleep? Basic to sleep is the fact we wake up from it, as we presumably do not from death. If death resembles sleep, we should suppose that we wake up from it, but this is not what the normal man imagines; he imagines death as a slumber no one wakes up from, which means nothing. Death doesn’t resemble slumber, I said, since in slumber one is alive and sleeping, and I don’t know how death can resemble anything at all for us, since we have no experience of it, nor anything to compare it to.”

Also, even one of the new-age psychic books suggests that meditation is as close to near-death experience as we can get – makes me think of my questions on this very topic earlier.

When you can expect nothing: A gift horse, full of surprises

Maybe we don’t always have expectations – penis size, for example, is apparently a crapshoot. One can hope, of course, but pop culture will caution about expectation in either direction.

Vonnegut’s preternatural obsession with cocks and their sizes (appearing in both Slaughterhouse and in Breakfast of Champions) is another reflection on how our society prioritizes and values this all-important fact. Size matters, even when this particular size is confidential and invisible. He has just made it visible.

From Slaughterhouse: “Montana was naked, and so was Billy, of course. He had a tremendous wang, incidentally. You never know who’ll get one.”

No, in fact you just never know… until you know, that is. But you really cannot have any expectations in this department. In Breakfast, there are stats provided about multiple characters on these matters.

And then there is Lars von Trier, famously bizarre film director, who claimed that actor Willem Dafoe had a “confusingly large” member, which called for a “stunt cock” in Antichrist. (And this becomes slightly more confusing for me, reflecting on watching The Last Temptation of Christ and recently wrapping up my reading of Reza Aslan’s book Zealot about Jesus of Nazareth. By the way, even Aslan refers back to Dostoevsky when it comes to faith and religion – does anyone not fall back on Dostoevsky?! Hard to reconcile it all somehow.)

Oh, and then there are always the poor micropenises.