in the hundreds

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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.

The ‘created place/space’

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“There are cities which don’t need literature: they are literature. They file past, chest thrust out, head on their shoulders. They are proud and full of confidence despite the garbage bags they cart around. The City-State, an example among so many others — she pulsated with literature.” –Tram 83, Fiston Mwanza Mujila

It can all return to place somehow, even when the story is about inner life. It does not need to be a city, as Fiston Mwanza Mujila posits, or as Italo Calvino writes about at length in Invisible Cities. This place can be an actual place, geographically, an interior, private place, or even a container/concept that represents a kind of space. A space that is occupied by some need, for example the need to write, to drink coffee, to love, to break out of previous forms or perceptions, the need to pretend or project images of ourselves into another space.

There are so many ways to create and exist in a space or place, for example:

  • “stepping off the plane at keflavik i didn’t know what to expect – only that i thought i belonged there. i went through all the stages of excitement, wonder, questioning, noticing all the surface-level weird things that all foreigners remark on animatedly when they arrive. almost 20 years later it’s easy to blur the hardships and forget all the missteps that often made the move seem like a mistake.”
  • “sometimes you know someone, even from afar, and feel like you want to hug her close to you and immediately declare your love, make it legal, and marry her. she, in central europe with her bewitching way with words, makes me feel that way every time i read her writing or see her messages in the far, cold nordics.”
  • “if he were serene, would he be able to accomplish the feats he does? underneath it all, with just a hint of resistance, he becomes fussy, testy and sarcastic.”
  • “how did i get blindfolded? i saw so clearly at the beginning, lost all sight, but eventually, like a hostage with no value, was dumped off somewhere, mostly unharmed. removing the blindfold, the reality is stark.”
  • “…and the guy painting on the remnants of the berlin wall – he was a felix, asking the firewall if he liked weed and shared a joint with him, if firewall would just roll it. according to firewall, it was an experience he just had to have. felix, as it happens, is the name of a ketchup brand in sweden; i frequently make people abroad jealous about my ability to get it, even though i don’t use/eat ketchup.”
  • “the phone rings. a husky, masculine-sounding voice answers gruffly, ‘computer room, this is odile.'”
  • “The point is that fantasies are fantasies and you can’t live in ecstasy every day of the year. Even if you slam the door and walk out, even if you fuck everyone in sight, you don’t necessarily get closer to freedom.” –fear of flying, erica jong
  • “compared with my present incarceration, the future holds no interest for me.” –the revolution of everyday life, raoul vaneigem
  • DUSHANBE!
  • “maybe a woman’s version of a midlife crisis involves stopping doing stuff?” –love and trouble, claire dederer
  • “but I’ll tell you a secret. when i want to take god at his word exactly, i take a peep out the window at his creation. because that, darling, he makes fresh for us every day, without a lot of dubious middle managers.” –the poisonwood bible, barbara kingsolver

You get the point. You see the ‘place’.

Image (c) 2014 S Donaghy

Reading

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“There are many sages, but on the other hand, not one stupid tree.

After writing the most difficult thing is reading.” -from “The Short Year”, Paavo Haavikko

“History is written by the victors. Traditions are woven by the people. Writers fantasize. Only death is certain.” –The Encyclopedia of the Dead, Danilo Kiš

“A knowledge of different literatures is the best way to free one’s self from the tyranny of any of them.” -from On Oscar Wilde, José Martí

…I often claim not to understand addiction (and it’s a subject, much like – inexplicably – teeth – that I am abnormally interested in), but extreme behavior, even of the sort that is not self-destructive, is a kind of addiction. This year, my extreme has found its niche in reading. As I’ve written about numerous times, I dropped reading for many years. When I did not want to think or feel, or manage the fatigue that comes from either, I pushed my passion for reading into dormancy, letting other obsessions take hold (incessant television droning around me, baking industrial amounts of cakes and cookies, working to the point of excessive exhaustion). It’s odd that one can just ignore a passion, pushing it aside as though it were never there, as though it were never something that clutched at the heart and pushed at the back to make one continue to indulge. But it can happen.

As 2016 was coming to a close, many things converged – feeling the new, if deceptive, bloom of love, the influence of accidents, injuries, near or sudden death, the letting go of the grip of all-consuming grief – that made me feel less afraid of feeling again. (Perhaps counterintuitively, it took a handful of new ‘bad’ things to sweep away the persistent influence of old ‘bad’ things, as if the new and old could balance each other out.)

“Sometimes it takes a book to jolt you out of where you are. It doesn’t have to be a great book. Just the right book at the right moment, one that opens something up or exposes you to something new or somehow forces you to reexamine your life.” –My Life with Bob, Pamela Paul

And so the books re-opened. And none too soon. Reading does, after all, inform how we see and interpret the world we live in – seeing the patterns repeat, and new patterns form, we can almost feel hope even in the darkest of circumstances. It feels, in fact, as though the literature of the world chronicles the darkness in order to shine a light, however dim. It sounds glib – I don’t much feel like delving more deeply into it than that. But it’s powerful and moving to the degree that I can see every single day why I stopped reading for such a long time (even if I kick myself in regret over all that wasted, lost time). Looking at the world in late 2016, it would be easy to fall into a sense of complete despair: only literature, recounting past tragedies and triumphs, seems to keep despair at bay and illustrate the way toward sanity.

We live in times when, for example, we can see reflections of the kinds of mania and near-repression Azar Nafisi describes in Reading Lolita in Tehran:

“We lived in a culture that denied any merit to literary works, considering them important only when they were handmaidens to something seemingly more urgent—namely ideology.”

We live in times in which we should feel protective of books and the freedom of consuming information and diverse viewpoints, stories and narratives. We cannot take for granted the availability of this abundance:

“You can’t guarantee things like that! After all, when we had all the books we needed, we still insisted on finding the highest cliff to jump off.” –Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury

After all, these riches could be taken from us, lost to our own indifference, confidence in broken systems or traditions and lack of care.

“This is the paradox of the power of literature: it seems that only when it is persecuted does it show its true powers, challenging authority, whereas in our permissive society it feels that it is being used merely to create the occasional pleasing contrast to the general ballooning of verbiage. (And yet, should we be so mad as to complain about it?” –The Uses of Literature, Italo Calvino

“Literature is one of a society’s instruments of self-awareness—certainly not the only one, but nonetheless an essential instrument, because its origins are connected with the origins of various types of knowledge, various codes, various forms of critical thought.” –The Uses of Literature, Italo Calvino

And yet books are often the only way most of us will experience so much of the world and the only way we can experience history:

“Most of us can’t rush around, talk to everyone, know all the cities of the world, we haven’t time, money or that many friends. The things you’re looking for, Montag, are in the world, but the only way the average chap will ever see ninety-nine percent of them is in a book.”-Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury

Even if we had endless disposable means and could travel to every place in the entire world, we cannot experience life through the eyes of someone else. The way a writer has perceived, lived and described something is necessarily, forcefully, different from our own experience, even if at the same time as being eye-opening, the experiences s/he describes is relatable to us as individuals in some way. I cannot feel the same outrage as someone experiencing the injustice of another time in history any more than I can feel the same outrage as someone experiencing an injustice that is not perpetrated on me today. As a human I can feel it, feel some form of associated pain, hurt, confusion and anger, but I am not a black man in America; I am not a Jew in 1940 in Europe (or any time); I am not a woman of color or even a woman who lives in most of the places of the world where being a woman is perilous (sure, it’s kind of perilous everywhere, but least of all in Scandinavia); I am not a Native American or First Nations person; I am not yet elderly; I do not have any debilitating handicaps… you get the picture.

Whether visible or not, there are so many ways of being in the world that I cannot – you cannot – no one but the individual can – understand from the inside. No matter how sensitive or tuned in or intellectually astute we are, we cannot experience anything beyond the projection of empathy.

And even empathy seems in short supply. Almost everything I read is an evidentiary chronicle of all the ways in which we are terrible to each other and ourselves. Whether it’s the grinding poverty that kills, mass discrimination, hidden prejudice, self-abuse… it’s brutal to be human.

To read offers the beauty of the big picture, to know all the details as they unfold, to reflect on from a distance. And yet reading offers the opportunity to dissect, to examine, to analyze – and revisit and do it all again later. Books are a window on the world in a macroscopic, cultural and linguistic way but also microscopically, almost scientifically:

“It was beyond that screen of fickle humors that his gaze wished to arrive: the form of things can be discerned better at a distance.” –Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino

“As with many beauties of nature, the enchantment of human works can only be retained when viewed from a distance. Analysis is the microscope that brings objects close to us and reveals the coarse weave of their tapestry. The illusion dissolves when the artificial nature of the embroidery and presence of design flaws become apparent to the eyes.” –Advice for a Young Investigator, Santiago Ramón y Cajal

“This book can go under the microscope. You’d find life under the glass, streaming past in infinite profusion. The more pores, the more truthfully recorded details of life per square inch you can get on a sheet of paper, the more ‘literary’ you are. That’s my definition, anyway. Telling detail. Fresh detail. The good writers touch life often. The mediocre ones run a quick hand over her. The bad ones rape her and leave her for the flies. “So now do you see why books are hated and feared? They show the pores in the face of life.” –Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury

Reading can be a form of resistance. It can also be a form of acceptance.

Reading is a form of forgetting – and remembering:

“Curiously enough, one cannot read a book: one can only reread it.” -from “When we read a book for the first time”, Vladimir Nabokov

It is a process, according to Nabokov: you may know how to read, but are you a careful reader – have you read and reread and viewed it through the aforementioned microscope? Have you asked the right questions of it?

Italo Calvino posits something similar – less about the rigors of reading and rereading and more about the need to read backed by age and experience:

“In fact, reading in youth can be rather unfruitful, due to impatience, distraction, inexperience with the product’s “instructions for use,” and inexperience in life itself. Books read then can be (possibly at one and the same time) formative, in the sense that they give a form to future experiences, providing models, terms of comparison, schemes for classification, scales of value, exemplars of beauty—all things that continue to operate even if a book read in one’s youth is almost or totally forgotten. If we reread the book at a mature age, we are likely to rediscover these constants, which by this time are part of our inner mechanisms, but whose origins we have long forgotten.” –The Uses of Literature, Italo Calvino

Informed, careful reading is rarely done in a vacuum – brought to bear is the human experience, emotion and individual history and perspective. Also, there is the triangle Calvino describes, and which other disciplines, particularly the sciences, confirm/highlight.

“What I have described in terms of a twin-bed marriage must be seen as a ménage à trois: philosophy, literature, and science. Science is faced with problems not too dissimilar from those of literature. It makes patterns of the world that are immediately called in question, it swings between the inductive and the deductive methods, and it must always be on its guard lest it mistake its own linguistic conventions for objective laws. We will not have a culture equal to the challenge until we compare against one another the basic problematics of science, philosophy, and literature, in order to call them all into question.” –The Uses of Literature, Italo Calvino

Scientific investigation, too, is its own form of storytelling, which relies on finding data and then interpreting it, which is not always well understood.

“The confusion between these two diverse human activities — inventing stories and following traces in order to find something — is the origin of the incomprehension and distrust of science shown by a significant part of our contemporary culture.”  “The border is porous. Myths nourish science, and science nourishes myth. But the value of knowledge remains.” -from Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, Carlo Rovelli

These disorganized ramblings do not begin to cover everything. In fact, they cover nothing. They touch microscopically on the everything that is reading. The everything that has taken up residence and occupied my every waking moment this year. It can no more be contained in the confines of a blog post than a series of evocative or mind-altering sentences can truly be contained within just one book. Just ramblings, random thoughts, on my revived and enthusiastic appreciation of reading.

Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash

city life & love

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Immediately thoughts of other poems and writing come to mind, including “The City” by Eddy van Vliet and the incomparable and oft-quoted Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino:

“the more one was lost in unfamiliar quarters of distant cities, the more one understood the other cities he had crossed to arrive there”

cities resembled one another, as if the passage from one to another involved not a journey but a change of elements.“

““Cities also believe they are the work of the mind or of chance, but neither the one nor the other suffices to hold up their walls. You take delight not in a city’s seven or seventy wonders, but in the answer it gives to a question of yours.” “Or the question it asks you, forcing you to answer, like Thebes through the mouth of the Sphinx.””

““I think you recognize cities better on the atlas than when you visit them in person,” the emperor says to Marco, snapping the volume shut. And Polo answers, “Traveling, you realize that differences are lost: each city takes to resembling all cities, places exchange their form, order, distances, a shapeless dust cloud invades the continents. Your atlas preserves the differences intact: that assortment of qualities which are like the letters in a name.””

Phantom Limbs
Anne Michaels

“The face of the city changes more quickly, alas! than the mortal heart.”
—Charles Baudelaire

So much of the city
is our bodies. Places in us
old light still slants through to.
Places that no longer exist but are full of feeling,
like phantom limbs.

Even the city carries ruins in its heart.
Longs to be touched in places
only it remembers.

Through the yellow hooves
of the ginkgo, parchment light;
in that apartment where I first
touched your shoulders under your sweater,
that October afternoon you left keys
in the fridge, milk on the table.
The yard – our moonlight motel –
where we slept summer’s hottest nights,
on grass so cold it felt wet.
Behind us, freight trains crossed the city,
a steel banner, a noisy wall.
Now the hollow diad!
floats behind glass
in office towers also haunted
by our voices.

Few buildings, few lives
are built so well
even their ruins are beautiful.
But we loved the abandoned distillery:
stone floors cracking under empty vats,
wooden floors half rotted into dirt;
stairs leading nowhere; high rooms
run through with swords of dusty light.
A place the rain still loved, its silver paint
on rusted things that had stopped moving it seemed, for us.
Closed rooms open only to weather,
pungent with soot and molasses,
scent-stung. A place
where everything too big to take apart
had been left behind.

Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

The bony prominence

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there’s a body on the railings/that i can’t identify/and i’d like to reassure you but/i’m not that kind of guy” –robyn hitchcock & the egyptians, “raymond chandler evening”

The gaze of the besotted: “You could talk, and I could simply… stare.” And the response of the sensei-like object, quietly bearing witness to repeated patterns and burned one too many times: Soften this with caution. After all, on Friday, all the animals behaved strangely. Deer and cats all racing up and down hills and into hiding with swiftness that suggested they were all being chased by some invisible predator. Birds were flying in strange, almost panicked, patterns. Should this signal that we take cover, adopt caution as the mantra, or that we should live with reckless abandon?

“What does a yellow light mean?”
“Slow down.”
“Whaaat …. does …… a yel-llllllow……light… mean?”

In the simmer of the slow, thoughts on the theme of training or re-training (the self) resurface. I wondered, after reaching middle age, having spent most of the first half of my life alone (the adult part), whether it is possible to train yourself to – and can you – be around another person – that is, all the time? Not just a dinner date or a weekend together in the Algarve. But really be together. All the evidence I see around me says no. And all the case studies of people who have toughed it out for 20, 30 or even, like my parents, 43 years (actually more than that, but 43 years of marriage as of this past suntanned Friday full of wild and domestic animals run amok), indicate that it’s more misery than mirth.

Having lived without sharing space or time, can you shift the routine and way of thinking to accommodate another – can you even become desirous of spending life’s second half (or some part of it) with someone else? Or is the temptation of liberal and free abandon too great? I wonder sometimes if this form of isolating oneself is actually a form of alienation, which Erich Fromm touched upon:

“Modern man is alienated from himself, from his fellow men, and from nature. He has been transformed into a commodity, experiences his life forces as an investment which must bring him the maximum profit obtainable under existing market conditions. Human relations are essentially those of alienated automatons, each basing his security on staying close to the herd, and not being different in thought, feeling or action. While everybody tries to be as close as possible to the rest, everybody remains utterly alone, pervaded by the deep sense of insecurity, anxiety and guilt which always results when human separateness cannot be overcome. Our civilization offers many palliatives which help people to be consciously unaware of this aloneness.” (from The Art of Loving)

On the other hand, Calvino offers:

“And Polo said: ‘The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it’.” (from Invisible Cities)

confined

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All day I struggled to stay awake, and now that it’s time to sleep, I’m struggling. It’s the confines of things – whether it’s a corporate structure, a deadline, a shirt buttoned all the way to the top – it’s all suffocating.

Is anything, though, more suffocating than misunderstandings and false assumptions? How can one possibly be expected to understand the full picture if she doesn’t have all the facts? If one has only half the story, and even that much possibly false, how can she act appropriately? Perhaps the answer is – never act at all.

“Marco Polo describes a bridge, stone by stone. “But which is the stone that supports the bridge?” Kublai Khan asks. “The bridge is not supported by one stone or another,” Marco answers, “but by the line of the arch that they form.” Kublai Khan remains silent, reflecting. Then he adds: “Why do you speak to me of the stones? It is only the arch that matters to me.” Polo answers: “Without stones there is no arch.”” –Invisible Cities, Calvino

 

Expectation and the value of nothing

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“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.