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

Frightening times: Tyranny

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“You submit to tyranny when you renounce the difference between what you want to hear and what is actually the case.” -from On Tyranny, Timothy Snyder

“When anticipation of, and salivation over, the trickle of power sinks to the level of cruelty to helpless children, one is tempted to accept that all that is left to say is—nothing. The rest is silence. It is an admission that humanity has finally touched the peak of apprehension and the nadir of impotence.” -from Climate of Fear, Wole Soyinka

This is not the most coherent “essay” but I am overflowing with thoughts I don’t have the time or wherewithal to organize. I am thinking: What is terrorism? It is a form of tyranny – the uncertainty and fear created by unstable and unpredictable forces, among which, to my mind, the United States government/president can be counted at present. Anything that creates terror in or threatens a whole population or group.

Watching the new iteration of The Handmaid’s Tale, after having re-read the book a few weeks ago, I’m struck (as most people are) by the depiction of how easy it would be to end up with a society as extreme and dramatically transformed as that in the show/book. It would be not entirely different from what is happening in the US today. Make a few changes in society that anger people but don’t ultimately send a big enough alarm through the population – stage an attack, blame some false perpetrator, declare martial law and claim it’s only temporary. We’ve seen some version of this play out in countries we’ve widely regarded with dismay as “uncivilized” or “in need of American intervention”. Would Americans even be prepared, or would they, like in The Handmaid’s Tale, be meek, “Well, it’s only temporary…” and “Let’s wait and see…”? Incrementally it’s not so bad, it seems. After all, it’s only temporary, right? Surely someone else will do something about it. And by the time they felt the true violations of their individual sovereignty encroaching, it would already be too late. They’d try to protest but be met with violence against which they have no defense. Some would try to escape; many would wait too long and wonder why they had not gone sooner. Probably because these things never seem like they can happen. (Our real-life comparative equivalent being late 1930s/early 1940s Germany.)

As in The Handmaid’s Tale, a new order would soon exist, and people would wonder how they got there. Living in a bubble of ‘false safety’, as if nothing can go wrong, believing that democracy and its accompanying institutions are strong enough to withstand any onslaught, without guarding it closely, is how a society ends up here. As Yale professor Timothy Snyder writes in his recent book, On Tyranny:

“We tend to assume that institutions will automatically maintain themselves against even the most direct attacks.”

“The American abolitionist Wendell Phillips did in fact say that “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” He added that “the manna of popular liberty must be gathered each day or it is rotten.””

Angling language

“Language is power. When you turn “torture” into “enhanced interrogation,” or murdered children into “collateral damage,” you break the power of language to convey meaning, to make us see, feel, and care. But it works both ways. You can use the power of words to bury meaning or to excavate it.” -from Men Explain Things to Me, Rebecca Solnit

“Be alert to the use of the words extremism and terrorism. Be alive to the fatal notions of emergency and exception. Be angry about the treacherous use of patriotic vocabulary.” -from On Tyranny, Timothy Snyder

It is easy to make people believe what you want them to believe – especially if you are confirming their biases or existing suspicions, stoking their biggest fears. Someone like Donald Trump (and his proponents/adherents) can somehow play both sides of the same counterfeit coin: on one side, America is the greatest country in the world (it’s not); on the other, America is a hellscape of unemployment and ‘nothing good’ awaiting the historical inheritors of its greatness (hetero white men and, to some extent, women – who maybe in the minds of these people gain their ‘greatness’ by proxy through these men and the children to which they give birth). But you can’t honestly, fully believe both things at once: the country is the best but is also the worst? It’s not as simple as that, but it underlines the agenda of manipulating language to manipulate people. Especially people who aren’t generally all that analytical or looking at a broad range of sources for information. Seduced by hearing everything they’ve always wanted to hear, it doesn’t matter if it’s factual or honest. It makes them feel good/right/understood.

“To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.” -from On Tyranny, Timothy Snyder

“The first mode is the open hostility to verifiable reality, which takes the form of presenting inventions and lies as if they were facts. The president does this at a high rate and at a fast pace. One attempt during the 2016 campaign to track his utterances found that 78 percent of his factual claims were false. This proportion is so high that it makes the correct assertions seem like unintended oversights on the path toward total fiction. Demeaning the world as it is begins the creation of a fictional counterworld. The second mode is shamanistic incantation.” -from On Tyranny, Timothy Snyder

Language of anger: Where we are now

Everyone is angry about something, and half of America, arguably, is angry about the way the most recent presidential election turned out. (Most of those, however, aren’t likely to react in a violent way, which is an interesting point.) Of course that is not all that is at stake. Essentially, the pervasive anger that marked the campaign, to which Trump and Bernie Sanders gave voice on either side of the aisle, is symptomatic of a populace that knows it lives under a completely broken system. The idea that either party or individual candidate could truly fix the ills of a fundamentally flawed system is also an illusion. I’d argue that this is what fuels the anger to the levels it has reached. Anger and fear, like that of an animal caught in a trap. The recent past has created a (false) sense of entitlement, envy and irrational hatred (ressentiment, as Pankaj Mishra writes about at length in his recent book, The Age of Anger).

“This bizarre indifference to a multifaceted past, the Cold War fixation with totalitarianism, and more West-versus-the-Rest thinking since 9/11 explains why our age of anger has provoked some absurdly extreme fear and bewilderment, summed up by the anonymous contributor to The New York Review of Books, who is convinced that the West cannot ‘ever develop sufficient knowledge, rigor, imagination, and humility to grasp the phenomenon of ISIS’. The malfunctioning of democratic institutions, economic crises, and the goading of aggrieved and fearful citizens into racist politics in Western Europe and America have now revealed how precarious and rare their post-1945 equilibrium was.” -from The Age of Anger: A History of the Present, Pankaj Mishra

The false sense of security – the cost of “freedom” – is never really calculated. Even if there were consensus as to what “freedom” actually means. It certainly means different things to different people.

But, as Tocqueville warned, ‘to live in freedom, one must grow used to a life full of agitation, change and danger’. Otherwise, one moves quickly from unlimited freedom to a craving for unlimited despotism. As he explained: When no authority exists in matters of religion, any more than in political matters, men soon become frightened in the face of unlimited independence. With everything in a perpetual state of agitation, they become anxious and fatigued. With the world of the intellect in universal flux, they want everything in the material realm, at least, to be firm and stable, and, unable to resume their former beliefs, they subject themselves to a master.” -from The Age of Anger: A History of the Present, Pankaj Mishra

Nothing new

“… ‘the tyranny of the quantifiable,’ of the way what can be measured almost always takes precedence over what cannot: private profit over public good; speed and efficiency over enjoyment and quality; the utilitarian over the mysteries and meanings that are of greater use to our survival and to more than our survival, to lives that have some purpose and value that survive beyond us to make a civilization worth having.” -from Men Explain Things to Me, Rebecca Solnit

“Rousseau understood ressentiment profoundly, even though he never used the word – Rousseau, the first outraged diagnostician of commercial society and of the wounds inflicted on human souls by the task of adjusting to its mimetic rivalries and tensions. Kierkegaard first used the term precisely in The Present Age (1846) to note that the nineteenth century was marked by a particular kind of envy, which is incited when people consider themselves as equals yet seek advantage over each other. He warned that unreflexive envy was ‘the negatively unifying principle’ of the new democratic ‘public’. Tocqueville had already noticed a surge in competition, envy and rivalry resulting from the democratic revolution of the United States. He worried that the New World’s ‘equality of conditions’, which concealed subtle forms of subjugation and unfreedom, would make for immoderate ambition, corrosive envy and chronic dissatisfaction. Too many people, he warned, were living a ‘sort of fancied equality’ despite the ‘actual inequality of their lives’. Having succumbed to an ‘erroneous notion’ that ‘an easy and unbounded career is open’ to their ambition, they were hedged in on all sides by pushy rivals. For the democratic revolutionaries, who had abolished ‘the privileges of some of their fellow-creatures which stood in their way’, had then plunged into ‘universal competition’.” -from The Age of Anger: A History of the Present, Pankaj Mishra

The future past

“We in ancient countries have our past—we obsess over the past. They, the Americans, have a dream: they feel nostalgia about the promise of the future.” –Reading Lolita in Tehran, Azar Nafisi

But this is not so now – there is a tug-of-war between those who are looking to the promise of the future (or at least trying to safeguard it beyond the foreseeable future) and those who want to greedily live in the now with an eye full of envy and nostalgia, on a past that probably never existed but which they nevertheless elevate. And it’s everywhere. As a woman I don’t go through the world imagining that every man sees me as an equal, but I usually don’t imagine that people like my own father, who constantly praised my brain and smarts when I was a child, telling me I could do whatever I wanted, or his friends are longing for some 1950s-era period where women would be forced to stay at home, pop out children and have dinner on the table. Or that they would sit around spewing hateful condemnations of all women, especially those who have achieved any kind of power or influence.

And yet, this is literally what I hear from them, and sometimes I hear this from (American) men my own age and younger. Like the hypocrite of hypocrites Donald Trump is, he applies one standard to his daughter and denigrates the rest of womankind. My father, too, thinks this is fine – expected even – that I would have an independent, professional life full of my own choices. But every other woman is a “stupid bitch” (from Hillary Clinton to Pramila Jayapal, from Theresa May to Ivanka Trump) who does not belong in public life.

As long as we have this kind of man and this kind of thinking, particularly in decision-making roles, there will still be people obsessing over a mostly illusory past and trying to force people, women and men both, into certain (outdated) roles. Will we have the fortitude or agency to stop this force?

Abandoning humanity

I highlight and personalize points about women in particular, largely because The Handmaid’s Tale focuses on women’s subjugation and objectification. But the real story is an anti-human story. What becomes of humanity when it is divided by systematic inequality, by ideological warfare, the inability to perceive propaganda or discern fact from fiction, manipulated by language and how it is used?

“Is the spiral of antihumanism now unstoppable? If so, where will it lead? Constantly immersed in the cumulative denigration of human sensibilities, only to have one’s most pessimistic predilections topped again and again by new acts—or revelations—of the limitless depth to which the human mind can sink in its negative designs, one is tempted to declare simply that the world has now entered an irreversible state of global anomie.” -from Climate of Fear, Wole Soyinka