Dear Jon . . . (#26) Re: Joyce, at the start of the Wake

End here. Us then. Finn, again! Take . Bussoftlhee, mememormee! Till thousandsthee. Lps. The keys to. Given! A way a lone a last a loved a long the

Dear Jon,

So thanks for your pre-game thoughts, here at base camp. The game was my idea. I’d been glancing at Finnegans Wake here and there for some time now: a dull metallic grey flash in the corner of my eye, probably as I mosey around the bookshelves toward its companions either side – Isherwood, Kelman, Kennedy. Like a mountain, at a glance, the book is intimating. And some books, like mountains, have reputations that precede them – often simply to do with sheer size. If we do a brief geological survey of books, we can see the notable English summits of Clarissa and Middlemarch (a seemingly rare exception to the predictably male propensity for writing long prick-waving novels) and the imposing imperial heights and panoramas of the Victorian social epic – the sooty slopes and smoggy climes of the Dickensian massif. Over the water, there are the modernist mountains of The Man Without QualitiesIn Search of Lost Time and Joseph and His Brothers. Eastwards stands The Brother’s Karamazov and behind that, its sister peak, the vast Russian plateau of War and Peace; westwards the American rockies as thrown up by the postmodern orogeny, the anarchic peaks of Gravity’s Rainbow and The Recognitions, Underworld and Infinite Jest. Even now, and probably unwisely, seeing as I’ll be starting on the Wake shortly I'm lost in William H. Gass’s sixhundredworder The Tunnel.

Long novels pose their own particular problems: maintaining the momentum for the long haul, the larger amount of storage you need in the brain space for what has come before, you need extra room in your bag when you’re lugging it around. 

And the Wake isn’t simply long – the reputation of Finnegans Wake is less the length of the trek and more the nature of the terrain. How the path is unclear or absent. How the maps, more than usual, seem conflicted about the territory or are in themselves incomprehensible. How the path – if there is one – digresses, loops, and follow like a series of tedious arguments at cross-purposes above a glacial outflow. On the route designated The Joyce Trail, it’s at Finnegans Wake where people tend to turn back. They’ve sauntered through Dubliners. They’ve tackled Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, they’ve scaled the lofty daytime heights of Ulysses (and even then, that’s a rare reader right there), but no, they’re stopping here. Not only are they stopping here, but what they see before them is a lesser peak. It’s a gully, they say: a sunken formation, a volcano that collapsed under its own weight. It’s imploded to become a kind of inversion – a too many-circled Inferno in which Joyce is our unreasonable Virgil taking us down into his own fundament. Martin Amis called it ‘the ultimately reader-hostile, reader-nuking immolation.’ T. S. Eliot said (my favourite quote thus far on the matter): ‘one book like this is enough.’ Even the book’s own introduction, says that ‘it is, in an important sense, unreadable.’  

So feels particularly helpful to have someone else along for the trek – to compare notes, to share observations, to maintain motivation. I’m not sure we’ve quite done this before, reading something simultaneously – or at least not so formally. Like you, I’m not exactly sure to expect. Joyce had an astonishing mind, an adventurer in words, a kind of pirate of literature with his eye-patch who raided the great storehouse of world literature to create his work. I expect puns. I expect boredom. I expect surprise. I expect jealousy. I expect to be impressed and nonplussed. Maybe to be moved? I don’t know. 

What kind of book is this? A wake is what happens after a death. A wake is the pattern made by a ship over water. A wake is the opposite to beingasleep. 

Yet the night is falling, and is time for the nighttime book. We stand at base camp. The mountain before is nightdark (blackened perhaps by prior immolated readers), and the milky constellations above unfamiliar, or half-familiar (helpful to navigate with or no?). There are the the ivy-snared crenelations of Howth Castle (and Environs). And so we head onwards, or downwards or roundwards – through a commodious vicus of recirculation . . .

Yours

Jim

Dear Jon . . . (#24) Re: Getting the Alternative Facts Right

Dear Jon,

To address the question of your last missive, the how of my research is, I guess, like everyone else. I google. I input search terms into library catalogues. I scribble a lot of library classmarks on notecards and shlep through libraries. I get out books from libraries, and I frown over the books, and maybe even read them. I go to a place, mosey about, take notes, photographs. I ask someone about their experience of x or y or even z. I sit in a room, I play with words, and I allow some logic or some associative pattern to form. Sometimes I know what I’m looking for, sometimes I don’t, but the how, more or less, is simple enough. That isn’t to say it can’t be frustrating or difficult, but the basic processes are there. 

As to how much it matters to get ‘the facts’ right – this draws me to larger questions on fictionality, on truth, on metaphysics, on reality. The images that speed through the mind are mirrors, shadow-play on screens, theatre sets and empty Hollywood lots. Yes – to a certain extent, in certain ways, it matters.

Aldous Huxley died in 1963.

But if I write that Aldous Huxley died in 1975 or 1925 or 2012, then it matters if this is wrong. The reader gets to this line and, perhaps, stumbles. Is the writer mixing him up with another Huxley (there were so many)? Did the writer simply not have google or editors? Is the writer doing something else with history or facts that was as yet undetected? And if the writer isn’t attempting the latter, there may be a loss – if only a little – of faith in the writer, or at least a small fissure in what they were attempting to create. The classic model for fiction is Coleridge’s schtick about the suspension of disbelief (ignoring, for the moment, the postmodern penchant for audience participation, the writer striding out on stage, the actors speaking out of turn). 

Aldous Huxley died in 1964.

Isn’t unbelievable. It isn’t true, but it is within the realms of what could happen. Most people – I’d wager – wouldn’t blink at this. They probably don’t know when he was born (it was 1894), and who knows all the birth dates and death dates of writers anyway. Maybe they have the vague knowledge that Brave New World was written in the thirties. It isn’t unbelievable that Aldous Huxley died in 1964. Or that he died in 1970 (the death year of Forster) or that he died in 1943 (the death year of Woolf, Joyce), or even that he died in 1930 (the death year of Lawrence).

Thomas Hardy died in 1928.

Seems less believable than Huxley dying in 1970, or 1943 or even 1930. That Victorian grandmaster of tragic novels dying in 1928? And yet this has the virtue of being true. Thomas Hardy did die in 1928. His ashes were interred in Westminster Abbey, his heart was buried in Dorset, and Virginia Woolf went to the funeral where she thought of Max Beerbohm’s letter, just read, and her lecture to the Newnhamites about women’s writing. At intervals ‘some emotion broke in’. The procession to poets corner she found ‘dramatic, the ‘In sure and certain hope of immortality’ perhaps melodramatic'. The real surprises us all the time, even though we know the possibilities of the real are vast. That which can’t happen happens all the time. That which can’t happen can often be code for that which I don’t want to happen. A person dies and we deny, we deny, we deny.

Leonard Cohen died in 2016.

But it happens all the same. You know this. Elections are won or lost. Elections are called. Facts are believed or disbelieved. And why get the facts right or wrong, when really it seems to be simply a choice between alternatives. It is what you buy, what you’re willing to spend your belief-capital on, and how that advances or protects you. Or it is simply what you know on the basis of experience, as experienced through your idiosyncratic eyes, your ears, your brain with its own very individual whirring and dreams and desires. But that doesn’t make it any less true (if it matters) that:

Aldous Huxley died in 1963.

And

C. S. Lewis died in 1963

And

J.F. Kennedy died in 1963

All on the same day. There was an excellent episode of This American Life recently, called ‘Anatomy of Doubt’. It detailed the story of a rape, and how a police case unravelled, in large part, because those (two successive foster mothers) who knew the woman, Marie, did not believe her when she said she had been raped. The way she acted was not how people who have been raped act, in their view. Only she was raped. This is a fact. People behave in ways we don’t expect all the time. I behave in ways I don’t expect all the time. The world is relentlessly complex and the most complex aspect of it is the people who live in it, each a world unto themselves, with great tracts of space between. And how often is it, when we’re exchanging work with others that it is the quote-real-unquote things that are disbelieved? These often small, but sometimes large, things gesture at a discontinuity that exists between person to person. There are moments of connection, yes, but also startling disjunctions. And how we bridge that, how we make ourselves believed – who the fuck knows. 

I just tell the facts as I know them. After questioning, and measuring it against my own individual head and heart.  

Yours,

Jim

Dear Jim . . . (#23) Re: Pregnant in the Head-Brain

More from Jon: here.

Dear Jim,
Fertilisation of the womb requires that sperm are deposited high in the vagina of a woman close to the time of ovulation, says my university physiology textbook. You did ask about the earliest point of gestation right?
Oh, reread your letter. That makes more sense.
Gestation as metaphor for art has a heavy pedigree. I’ve just been corralling the Oxen of the Sun in Ulysses for the second time and apart from the fact that reading that section feels like a labour of a different sort, it also gives us the subtle imagery of Joyce’s avatar Stephen spouting off about exactly this gestatory idea of art, while an actual parturient shits out a wee bairn (or whatever the Guinness-swillers call them) on the upstairs landing.

Dear Jon . . . (#22) Re: The Lowest Hottest Place on Earth

Dear Jon,

So:

This is the other extreme, says the voiceover. The shot travels low over vivid green pools crowded with strange almost coral-like formations. The shores of the pools are white, crystalline. Only the blue sky seems to confirm or suggest that this isn’t some other planet. The place, as the voiceover continues to say, is the Danakil Depression in Ethiopia – one of the lowest and hottest places on Planet Earth. The footage, from Planet Earth, that flagship BBC programme of the 2000s. The voiceover, of course, David Attenborough. For many people, perhaps particularly for those of our generation, this was one of those TV events that sticks in the head, that stays with you.

I remember how struck I had been by these scant moments of footage. Of the Dalliol Springs, of Erte Ale. Well, that isn’t quite true. It is truer to say that I imagine I must have been struck by it, because my memory has returned to those images, that narration, over and over again. It is easy to see why – it’s so alien and strange, a landscape very different (at least in the twenty first century in which we live) to Essex, or Cornwall which were probably the two places I knew best at the time. Itis extreme compared to the well-corralled fields, the small copses of the school bus route and the miles of suburbia about the high street of the former; or even the wilder cliffs, beaches, and moors of the latter. What strikes me is that, barring perhaps the snow leopard, what I chiefly remember are the landscapes of Planet Earth, not the life that lived on them. I suspect, though this may be wrong, that for you perhaps the reverse was true. 

Earlier though, life had held my attention – the mandatory childhood obsession with dinosaurs, associated with another BBC programme Walking with Dinosaurs, the first programme that I was allowed to stay up late for. Later than that, I had a fascination with birdlife – descendants of the dinosaurs. With my brother that stayed, of course, but even today, while on my daily constitutional in Victoria Park, I was pleased to see a heron do its odd aerial lollop over the memorial trees. Whenever I hear gulls, almost invariably, time is rewound and I’m in a Cornish quay, or upon cliffs looking out over storm-addled seas, and I wish I was there. 

And this is all mysterious, these private obsessions and associations – why do certain things persist and others don’t? Why does Clarissa remember some silly musings over cabbages of all things? Why does that trauma tear you open, and not this? Why does this lead to a tailspin into depression, and not that? Why does this thing bring you joy, and this other thing leave you cold? Why does this image lead to that image, or why do those things appear in your fiction, these motifs, or this character or this word here? We are all these series of accretions and associations, and we’re not even aware, and even when we are aware these are stories that we tell ourselves. So always, when we write, when we live (if such things can be separated), we’re drawing on, fighting with, drawing out, these unknown histories. 

Going back to the Danakil Depression, to Erte Ale, the voiceover continues: here a mountain is in gestation. Can you feel how I beginning to draw this together for a metaphor? An extended metaphor, no less. What I’ve been talking about – these unknown histories, that’s what’s going on beneath the crust, here and there, glaring out of lava lakes, sometimes grinding up together to shake down cities. The maker and unmaker of our psychological landscapes.

At the moment, I’m at work on a new short story. As always the process is proving mysterious. We talk a lot about writing as craft – at least in the sense that like anything else, you show up at your desk and you do the work. In that way, writing is anti-mysterious. It is why writing on TV and films is portrayed through montages. How else do you jazz up the mundanity of just sitting at a desk? But still, while sitting there writing I’m following an intuition that even I have only the faintest idea about. This is pretty common for me. You get out the seismographs, watch the patterns on the lava lake, and wait. What I want to the story to be like – I’m attempting to get at something very vague. I don’t know what it is exactly, but I know that ain’t it. I’ll know it when I see it. I’ll know it when I say it aloud. Or at least I hope I’ll know it. You use analogies, analogues: I want it to be like Glass’s Music in Twelve Parts (I don’t, this is an example) or I want it to do something similar to a Henry Moore sculpture (I don’t, this is also an example). Or whatever else. You check out fiction that does something similar, and puzzle over it. I’ve started doing a diagram to try and map out what I’ve gleaned from other parts of my brain.

I’d be interested in you talking about the gestation of your own work – particularly short prose pieces. What’s (as far as you can track it, if you can track it) the earliest glimmer of it? This is you, as it were, standing at the lowest point.

Yours,

Jim 

Dear Jim . . . (#21) Re: Space

More from Jon:

The mathematician’s patterns, like the painter’s or the poet’s must be beautiful; the ideas like the colours or the words, must fit together in a harmonious way. Beauty is the first test: there is no permanent place in the world for ugly mathematics.” – G. H. Hardy
Dear Jim,
So at the end of your letter on time you asked for a letter about space. Conveniently, space – in its broadest sense – is what Measurement by Paul Lockhart is about. I will come back to that. First allow me a series of digressions.
(The Greeks treated all of mathematics spatially. Three was a line three times longer than a line of length one. To add you put the lines end to end, to subtract you cut away a stick of the relevant length. They did all their maths in this way, shapes were vital.)

Dear Jon . . . (#20) Re: Reading, Time and Tide

‘The leader of the troop unlocked his word-hoard;
the distinguished one delivered his answer:’
Beowulf (trans Seamus Heaney)

Dear Jon,

It’s true, I talk a lot about re-reading. One of the reasons I prefer to buy a book than take it out from a library is because the thought occurs that I might want to re-read such a such a book. But it is more talk than action. I very rarely re-read books. This truth is documented. Records – those held in the Archives, walled up in a secret underground facility near Ultima Thule – suggest that the last book I actually re-read was Lawrence Durrell’s Tunc (1968) in April 2015. So not recently. Because, no, apparently 2015 isn’t recent anymore. Time flies.

And the problem is time, and how there isn’t enough of it. To re-read something, except for a very express purpose, seems a monumental extravagance and distraction. Apart from that, there is very much a grass-is-greener-on-the-other-side syndrome with reading. And there are so many new things to read (Butor’s Mobile (1962), Lessing’s The Good Terrorist (1986), Wolfram Von Eshenbach’s Parzival (!?!?!), and so little time with which to read it. And there seems to be less time recently. My experience of time is very tied up with my mental health, which has been at a slight ebb recently. Time becomes far more elastic than normal. It becomes the enemy, rather than simply itself. It is both slow and fast. Time is slow because you are slow. Everything takes ages. I have been reading this book (Conversation in the Cathedral – which is great, actually) forever, or doing this washing up (is it really the same washing up?), or writing in this document, or cooking this meal, or tidying this room, or hoovering this floor, or planning this day (can it really be the same day?)   forever. Each task stretches itself through the hours. Each task is like a rough attempt to fulfil an earlier failed attempt. Each task is a pencilling in onto time – made with a 9H pencil. Faint, ineffective. Each task is an escape from another task that isn’t going so well, and while you assure yourself that there is a method in your madness, if there is, it is a method severely lacking (you tell yourself that before you can do x you must put together a theatrical production to establish the truth of y (wherin you’ll capture the conscience of the king) and by this point several acts of the play have passed, and so time is thoroughly out of joint). Time is fast because it passes fast. At the beginning of a day it imposes: before you are the hours you must fill with the slow tasks. At the end of the day it mocks: these were hours you filled with so little. Or even, what did you even do? And of course, with this an extensive literature, a Meforshim of criticism and scrutiny – entirely unconvinced and negative, written in dark ink, forming a blacker and blacker palimpsest. And so it goes, time after time. And so this blog post gets later and later, etc. And the to-do list buries me, and then itself. 

Usually, as you know, I try to account for my time. As you also know, I have never been especially good at it. My notes are frequently unfinished, imprecise, half-remembered. Time slips away, and out toward the end of an evening, the end of the week, the end of the month. Or indeed, recently, for me, the end of the year – my birthday being but a few days ago. I’ve been told that I have note everything I do down, rate it for achievement, for closeness to others, for enjoyment (each out of ten). I’ve been told to note down any negative thoughts, any negative feelings in the mind or the body, that occur during these doings. 

Two challenges (among many others) while writing: (1) the time that writing takes, and (2) knowing when something is done. A beautiful term from Ye Olde English is ‘word-hoard’ – a store of words, a vocabulary. A lot of writing is the creation of a word-hoard – something that has its own vocabulary, language, set of symbols. It’s a fashioning, word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, page by page, and then going through commentaries from yourself and others and commenting on those comments, and then a reworking, a polishing, almost religiously until the whole thing tires, until the thing is dull for you, but shines (hopefully, hopefully) for others. You take time to make the thing is decipherable. You take the thing, and you bury it – that’s what you do with hoards. You bury them, and hope that it will be found and treasured by others. And this process takes time: the making, refining, the submitting, the waiting.

Walk around Leamington, as I did yesterday, and you’ll see – near the war memorial, and upon the slopes in the Jephson Gardens – that crocuses and snowdrops have put colour in among the green. Spring is coming to town. That which is buried is bursting into bloom. Near to me, St Mark’s chimes the hour, counting the time down to the resurrection of the dead. In Virginia Woolf’s The Waves (1931), the word ‘hoard’ is important – Jinny talks several times about breaking into her ‘hoard of life’. Jinny says how ‘Days and days are to come; winter days, summer days; we have scarcely broken into our hoard.’ Let the record show that I have 13 stories out, and that by the end of the week I hope this to get up to 15. Let the record show that the flowers are in bloom in Leamington. May the word-hoards be unlocked, and the locks themselves unscrewed from them, for both of us. 

This was on time (well, the post wasn’t, but you know). Maybe you do yours on space. Or not.

Yours in untimely fashion,

Jim

P.S. 

That corpse you planted last year in your garden,
Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?

– T.S. Eliot 

 

Dear Jon . . . (#18) This is Not For You

Dear Jon,

Be gone buzz words. Buzz off buzz words. Bzzzzzzzt.

Let’s talk attitudes, because there’s another aspect to deal with. There’s one attitude which you talk about, I should read, listen to, look at x. One side of the groat there. The other side of the groat: but it’s not for me, it’s not for people like me, it’s for other people.

Popular culture is everywhere. It is played in supermarkets, it is on television, it is on the internet. It is essentially the default. Some of it is great, profound, timeless; much of it isn’t. Regardless, it is here, there, and also everywhere. Usually, though not always, to get something else (what might tediously be called high culture or whatever, that discussion isn’t for now) there needs to be a conscious choice. This is a problem because often that which is unfamiliar is other and therefore, by definition perhaps, not for the likes of me.

Which is a problem because then you can’t make the judgements: do I like it or dislike it or hate or love it or it makes me queasy or jubilant or moves me more than I can understand or scares me more than I understand or gives me peace that passeth understanding shantih shantih shantih . . . because you’re busy not being there to make aforesaid judgements.  

Because essentially you need exposure.

You need exposure. And the internet can be helpful for this, because the idle stream of consciousness way it works can lead to unexpected places. You may arrive at Schoenberg or a recommendation for a novel or a beautiful piece of art that you may want to go see in person. Or not. Because often the internet is a mirror; it only gives you want you are willing to give.

To get a proper grasp on the questions you issued (Why do I like/dislike it? What do I like about it? What is it making me feel? What thoughts is it giving me?) you need to exercise exercising your judgement. By which I mean doing loads of montages in which you’re lifting books like dumbbells while listening to music and looking at pictures. 

But one of the ways we get better at judging, indeed how we judge at all, is by making comparisons.

Essentially, you need repeated exposure. Like a cure to claustrophobia, it requires something akin to being driven around in the boot of a car doing loops of the Coventry ringroad (at some point, believe me, you will stop screaming). No wait, this is bad metaphor. This is the kind of exposure that may be traumatising.

A lot of early exposure is through school. This is a gamble, because often education is geared up not to provide an aesthetic education per se; it is education toward passing a test, toward nailing assessment objectives, toward whatever can be quantified. So, atlot of it relies on individual teachers. I was lucky; I had a lot of great teachers. I had a maths teacher who leant me The Chrysalids (or maybe The Midwich Cuckoos – it had telepathic children in it, dammit). It was a teacher that recommended Dostoyevsky and Proust to me. But I know that for loads of people what could have been a love for literature becomes a loathing. Picking up a copy of Great Expectations gives them flashbacks to whiteboards, to memorising quotations, to boredom inexpressible. 

One way, and its not a sure way, to get art into someone’s hands, eyes, heart, is simply passionate advocacy. Someone who can simply say: ‘This is for you. Here. Someone who will probably never know who you are made it for you.’ And giving their  judgement – why they loved it, how it made them feel, what obsessed them about it from the first day they read it to this –  in such a way that you can see the enthusiasm in their eyes, the animation on their face, in the stream of their voice. Essentially, someone who can give you the best case for whatever it is.

Now, of course, whatever it is – you may not like it, and that’s okay. But even getting the understanding of why someone else likes it, the appreciation of how that could be the case, I think is a plus good thing.

Or you may like it. You may love it. It may be your new favourite thing.

And I'd like to give you the opportunity to do that for the three people from Azerbaijan (or whoever it is that actually reads this blog). Advocate for something. Make us believe.

Yours,

Jim 

 

Dear Jim . . . (#17) Re: On Converting Philistines

I think reversing one’s position, or changing one’s mind – or in this case, maybe the idea of an ‘aesthetic education’ might be worth discussing. But I’ll leave you to flesh that out…” – Jim

Dear Jim,

In your last letter you gave me the broadest of briefs. To throw out a few thoughts on changing one’s mind or – you said, as if the two things were obviously linked – ‘aesthetic education’. I’ll deal with the latter because although less interesting to me it won’t spiral into a ramble. A tight 500 is the goal. This bletter needs sending today and I left it all until the final countdown.

For more Jon Pill related ramblings click here.

Dear Jon . . . (#16) Re: Crime and Punishment, Trials and Castles

Dear Jon, 

Being, shall we say, terminally unhip – I too had an angst canon, though the bulk of it came out of the late 1800s rather than the late 1900s. Specifically, Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Crime and Punishment, Demons, The Brothers Karamazov. Yet, the connections with your canon are there, no? Instead of a murderous Manhattanite, there’s the axe-wielding Raskolnikov killing old women in St Petersburg. 

My adolescent mindset was less full of contempt, more fearful (Raskolnikov has both in spades). Very exercised and isolated by an unnamable romantic and sexual obsession. And further obsessed by the fantastical, whether that be in video game, novel, film. My first foray outside of that (excluding works set by the school curriculum) were works by Dostoyevsky and Sartre.

These are books, as you pointed out of your canon, that depict what might be called mentally ill characters. Certainly those in breakdown. Bit o’ the delirium tremens. But I think, at least in regards these characters, what drew me in wasn’t directly to do with those flashes of ‘madness’. What both Sartre and Dostoyevsky’s work did that gripped me was how they portray the drama of thinking. Thinking at its most extreme and intense. At some points, yeah, into breakdown. But they’re works wrestle with reality and religion in a direct, thrilling and frightening way. Perfect for the adolescent, because these questions have to be asked again and again by each new person of each new generation. It’s at this time, one hopes, that you’re doing the business of examining first principles. Why this, why that, why anything

I don’t have a religious background, barring the vague education, prayers and hymns that comes with attending a C of E school in south east England. In my family, God is a word that comes at the end of an exclamation, Heaven is the go-to place for the dead, and the go-to explanation of what death is should a child ask. It wasn’t that my family were atheists; they simply didn’t think about it.  In contrast, religion is rarely vague in Dostoyevsky; it is fervent, feverish. Thought itself is deeply felt. Ideas can break you and others. It can make you break others. And there was something deeply arresting about that: the back and forth of ideas, the exchange of views. Dostoyevsky takes ethical questions, turns them up to 11: if there is no immortality, isn’t everything permitted? what if you murdered someone? what if Christ came back? what if the Devil appeared to you?

Woolf puts it best when she writes in her essay “The Russian Point of View” that ‘the novels of Dostoyevsky are seething whirlpools, gyrating sandstorms, waterspouts which hiss and boil and suck us in.’ Around this time, I studied Hamlet and I remember the appeal of that character; my own identification with him – all of them: these men, Raskolnikov, Roquentin, Ivan Fyodorvitch, Hamlet, these gyres of thought, oscillating one way, then the other. To be or not to be. Right? Not that suicide entered my adolescent mind, or would have even quite understood that thought, or felt the numb force of it. But these books are about thought that has consequences. About how thinking is dangerous. 

Dostoyevsky is essentially about the danger of ideas. Look what ideas make you do to your fellow man. How you reason your way out of religion and feeling. Now, he was also super conservative – deeply concerned about nihilism, liberalism, utilitarianism etc. But there is one thing he pinpoints in Raskolnikov that has its appeals to the adolescent (and not just in those years, for many) mind. The desire to be Napoleon – to be beyond good and evil, or rather for you to able to litigate what’s good and evil entirely off your own bat and for yourself. To be exceptional. How your decisions don’t have to follow the same rules as everyone else’s. Like Gregory House, right? And that is dangerous.  

On feeling revisions or reversals: Crime and Punishment also had a slightly different hue when re-reading it a few years ago for my university degree: it was a fuck ton darker. The episodes with Svidrigailov, specifically his dreams with the very young girl who winks provocatively loomed way larger and scarier in my mind this time round. I think it slipped my mind or went over my head. 

One writer I’ve done a particular reevaluation of is Kafka – I recall attempting to read The Trial, oh a long time ago, and remember the creep of boredom sneaking in. I didn’t get it. There was that feeling that somehow my eyes weren’t tracking the words; that bad sign that either the book isn’t quite holding your attention, or your attention is being undercut by sleep deprivation/despair/hunger. I’m sorry to say, reader, I gave up. Which is a pretty rare occurrence for me (re: books anyway). And it’s not as if The Trial is on-the-surface difficult. But anyway, I returned to Kafka via The Castle only to find that actually he was great (of course), and entirely reversed my position.  

And I think reversing one’s position, or changing one’s mind – or in this case, maybe the idea of an ‘aesthetic education’ might be worth discussing. But I’ll leave you to flesh that out, and give it an initial direction. 

500 words on that. Go. 

Yourz

Jim

Dear Jon . . . (#14) Re: On Waste Lands of Straight People

I had not thought death had undone so many.

-T.S. Eliot

Dear Jon,

Well, I hope you had a merry Christmas time. One way to address your question is to refer you to my very early reading this year in which I made a sally into the 1700s. I read Robinson Crusoe, I read Gulliver’s Travels, I read Tristram Shandy. And the last of these showed me clearly that the madcap and what might be called ‘the experimental’ is inherent to the canon. That cray was there, all the time. You can see why both Joyce and Woolf saw much in that book. So, I don’t think my view of the canon has changed. I think, in a way, every writer has their own canon. Every book even. They all have their chosen forebears. When I think canon, I often see big thick Victorian tomes, and often have the yearning to go back to them, these books that I was particularly drawn to when I was young. Works by Dickens, Hardy, Dostoyevsky. There are feasts to be had in these books, and I read them a long time ago, and actually I think re-reading them would bring a lot of pleasure, though I struggle to find time to do that these days. It’d be a valuable experience; was it Nabokov who said that all reading is re-reading? Really what my reading does, regardless, is make me want to read more. Now admittedly, these days, that’s more likely to be a 20th century modernist (though these are just as much canon these days, right?) than a hefty Victorian paperweight, but still I think the year to come will provide opportunities to encounter both. Talking of the new year, I’m assuming you’re roundabout now peeking over the fence and thinking about future reading? When you make lists, excluding for particular purposes, what are the criteria at work in your noggin? Or maybe a better way to say it would be: what are the instincts at work in your instinct place*? Or would it? You tell me. 

Also: to rewind slightly: One thought I had while considering this capacity that literature can have in expanding empathy, and imagination is that this not only applies to others, but also to oneself. Not to be egotistic, or effusive about the modern preoccupation for self love. I am talking about the ability to imagine oneself or see oneself in the culture in which you exist. Of course, we are told that the world is swarming with gay men. They are in every novel, every TV drama, every situation comedy, every advert. They are everywhere, all the time. Inescapable. It must be so difficult for the heterosexual to cope, and tiring for the homosexual – mirrored constantly in the culture everywhere he looks. Why this request for representation? The gays are everywhere (they aren’t). Why do I have to watch/read this? (you don’t). This request for representation is essentially about this ability to imagine oneself in the world. My memories, as a kid, of seeing myself in the world in this way are scant. Glancing. I never had the luxury of any other openly gay people in my family, or in my friendship group, or in my school as a whole. It was (forgive me) a waste land of straight people.  

My initial memories of seeing gay men in the culture, stepping around the question of porn, wasn’t actually through literature – to own a book with such people in it (people like myself, people who I might like like, people who might like like me) seemed unthinkable, strangely terrifying, too physical in some way. Actually these memories are watching Youtube. There’s an odd genre of Youtube video that’s simply young gay people sharing their coming out stories, even coming out to camera, or coming out on camera to unsuspecting parents. I remember watching these, over and over. The last of these, always to increased heartbeat, tensely folded hands.* 

Literature came to me after I came out. There was Forster, was Baldwin, was Burroughs, was Isherwood, was Gide, was Vidal, was Genet. The sentimental, the profound, the pornographic, the angry, the grieving – anything gay, anything man-on-man and boy meets boy. And these books are, because of when and where they were written, always simultaneously outsider books. Maybe there will always an outsider aspect to books that deal with life as lived by gay people. It’s this outsiderness I wanted to dwell on – in relation to you and the role fiction has played in your life, particularly around adolescence. These books (for you I’m thinking of American Psycho, The Beach) often engage with alienation, and I wondered if that seeing-yourself quality was something that maybe you could subscribe to? Is that something to do with empathy, even if it is a kind of self empathy or recognition? Or in these cases, even an empathy about a lack of empathy? 

Yours Almost New Yearly,

Jim

P.S. Come back from Guern-Land soon; Leamington is less fun and full without you.

*Not a euphemism. Why would it be? What?

*I really wanted to talk about Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of our Nature, the Reading Revolution and the expansion of empathy, and how maybe that's not quite happening in social media in the same way as it did with the advent of the printing press but I ran out of room and breath and words and coherent thoughts to put into words and also time I ran out of time which is a shame because I wanted to maybe think about that in relation to your earlier post and to what I said in my last post but there was no time and space to draw them together in such a way that was satisfactory or interesting and so I didn't which is shame as this post could have been interesting it could have been but wasn't as instead I wrote I had not thought death had undone so many, and went on from there. 

Dear Jim . . . (#13) Re: Fiction vs Non-Fiction

More from the Jon-meister: 

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. “Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”[…] In consequence, I’m inclined to reserve all judgments[…]” – The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Dear Jim,

Thank you for your last bletter. Sorry this one is late, I blame everyone but myself.*

Dear Jon . . . (#12) Re: Imagining All the People

The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to Earth, from Earth to heaven.
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.

– William Shakespeare

Dear Jon,

I think that I mostly agree with your thoughts there. There is a lot you say about how words can divide us. How they frustrate debate or inflame resentment. I wanted to engage with this by talking about how words can do the opposite – specifically in relation to the imagination. What you termed: thinking about Others complexly. The imagination is often a slave of the passions too – it can both be something that spurs us onto the better futures that we see for ourselves, or can twist the facts to create parallel universes (hence why currently so much of US politics feels like it has slipped into a Don DeLillo novel: Alex Ross has a great piece about that in the New Yorker worth reading).

Martha Nussbaum presents the imagination as central to democratic practice in her book Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (2010): ‘Every modern democracy is also a society in which people differ greatly along many parameters, including religion, ethnicity, wealth and class, physical impairment, gender, and sexuality, and in which all voters are making choices that have a major impact on the lives of people who differ from ourselves.’ The imagination, she posits, is the way into the lives of others that we have the responsibility of considering when casting a vote. It is part of what it is to be a citizen in a democracy. And one way to get into the lives of others is through words, through literature. It would be a mistake to either limit literature to this thing only, or to give it a special status, but it does have certain important particularities: you sit with it, and there’s something personal about you alone with the words on the page, you alone with the words said in your own voice inside the privacy of your head, and the length of time you might spend with those words.

I wanted to single out two examples of works that have done this for me. The first is poetry, actually. Claudia Rankine’s most recent book Citizen (2014) an assemblage of prose poetry, essay, pictures, that attempt to capture everyday racism, everyday slights and violence against people of colour in the US. The second person is used often: you are the one sitting on the train, or reeling after a careless remark, or after being pulled over by police. 

You, there. 

Hey you. 

This is what that’s like

I am not a black man or woman living in 21st century America, but I felt like I got a glimpse into what that might be like. I took a leap of imagination. I took a leap of faith, guided by Rankine. It’s visceral, thoughtful, felt. There’s a video that features her voice reading from Citizen here – worth checking out. I love her voice. The mesmerising intonation of it.

There is a glancing similarity in some of the poems to my own experience as a gay man. Another African American writer, Ralph Ellison wrote a novel called Invisible Man (1952)the title is a way of describing the experience of being African American the 1950s: ‘invisible . . . simply because people refuse to see me.’ To be gay is another kind of invisibility. If one is in a cafe, at the barbers, on the bus, there are conversations one overhears that might be about you, and they don’t know it’s about you. When young, there are conversations among one’s friends, one’s family, that happen and they are about you, but at no point do they realise that it is you they they are discussing. Their disgust or derision or amusement isn’t directed at you, but it strikes you anyway.

Another writer I wanted to namecheck was Doris Lessing. Her powers to punchily give a reality to the messy claustrophobia of a human mind – in the fragmentation of The Golden Notebook (1962), and the pressures felt on women at her time, and indeed now, in say Martha Quest (1952) makes for uncomfortable, complicated reading. 

I wanted to know: what works have done this to you? What works of fiction do you feel has taken your imagination and expanded it in this way? What words made you leap into places you previously didn’t know?

Yours imaginatively,

Jim

Dear Jim… (#11) Re: Only a Straight White Male Can Call A Straight White Male ‘Privileged’.

“Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions.” – Hume
Dear  Jim,
I sympathise with the many feelings in your previous letter – try some ginger tea, it could be that feeling of heartbreak at President-Elect Trump is just excess gas – but we’ve been doing a lot of political chat lately admittedly with the occasional foray into Thompson and Baldwin, but in the interest of segueing us back towards the writing which this blog pretends to be about, I thought I’d talk a little bit about language.

Jon's latest missive in full here.

Dear Jon . . . (#10) Re: And how do you feel about that?

Dear Jon,

Let’s begin with feelings. It is 2013, it’s the London Old Vic theatre. On the stage is Boss Finley, or rather, someone playing Boss Finley. Thomas J. Finley. He’s ranting; he’s depicted on a screen. He believes that the Voice of God has called him from the red clay hills to keep white blood pure. Nevertheless he believes himself the greatest friend to coloured people in the South. The recent castration of a young black gentleman is deplorable (he, of course, had nothing to do with it), but the passion is understandable, to protect that which is held sacred: the purity of white blood. A heckler has come forward, and asks a question about the daughter of Thomas J. Finley, about a trip she made to hospital. The heckler is struck. Thomas J. Finley says he will answer the question. Thomas J. Finley talks of an effigy that had been burned of him at the the great State University that he himself had built. Thomas J. Finley blames the Northern radical Press. The heckler is being beaten downstage. There is the shock of emotion with all the elements together: the demagogue shouting on the screen, his bigotry, the violence in among the tables, the boom of a storm, the acceleration to this unbearable pitch.

I sit in my seat, transfixed. I feel very helpless. 

The quadrangle of the college was burned, Thomas J. Finley declares, because of the Northern radical Press. But that was on Good Friday, Thomas J. Finley declares, and today is Easter. The heckler is being kicked, repeatedly. A woman is screaming, crying. That was Good Friday, Thomas J. Finley declares. By this point too, I am crying. Startled tears. Today is Easter, declares Thomas J. Finley, and I am in St Cloud. 

This is how many felt, I think, during the events of the last week and months. Except that afterward, I don’t just get to step out into the London night, and know that what I saw was just a fiction (a large sign above me reading: Tennessee Williams’ Sweet Bird of Youth), and that actors are changing in dressing rooms, and I can message you to say how great it was, how moving, how shocking. I don’t get to do that. We don’t get to do that. We are stuck in the theatre, and soon Donald J. Trump will be inaugurated as the President of the US of A, the big winner of this overlong reality TV contest. There is a particular phrase in a John Gray article in the New Statesman that struck me. He writes of liberals: ‘from being the vanguard of human progress, they find themselves powerless spectators of events.’ Whether the rest of the article holds muster, I’m not really sure, but this line spoke to my experience as someone who (broadly) would term themselves a liberal, someone of the Left.

Lionel Trilling, the literary critic, in his book The Liberal Imagination (1950) quotes J. S. Mill in saying that the prayer of a liberal should be ‘Lord, enlighten thou our enemies’ – by which he meant ‘the intellectual pressure which an opponent like Coleridge could exert would force liberals to examine their position for its weaknesses and complacencies.’ A good sentiment, but with one problem – what liberals face isn’t an intellectual pressure right now (though there are no doubt weaknesses, complacencies). These forces that appear about us, they ain’t no Coleridge. This rightward slide isn’t about policy, not really – Donald Trump, Farage, May (belatedly, haphazardly). No policies, despite claims to the contrary. They don’t have any ideas. They have no idea what they’re doing, as evidenced by the Brexit shambles, by Trump’s floundering transition. Brexit means Brexit, we are told. America will be made great, we are told. The how be damned. The slogans reign supreme. The soundbite reigns supreme. Their results, while surprising to many, were only won gripping on with fingertips. Leave had a slender majority in the Referendum, Donald Trump didn’t even have that in his election. This nightmarish debacle hasn’t been about ideas or facts, but about feelings.

Feelings like helplessness.

Feelings like anger. 

Feelings like despair.

Feelings like distrust.

Feelings like alienation.

Feelings like I just don’t feel in control.

Feelings like I just want to break everything.

Feelings like everything is shit, the banks are shit, the politicians are shit, the media is shit, the Elites are shit shit shit.

Feelings like I just don’t feel like I’m listened to. 

Feelings like don’t fucking patronise me.

Feelings like human rights and health and safety are the worst things to happen to this country.

Feelings like this country is going down the pan.

Feelings like I think those people should just go home.

Feelings like I just want to say what I feel.

Feelings like I can just say anything, what does it matter?

Feelings like I don’t like that woman, I just don’t like her, she's a nasty woman.

Feelings like I don’t think women should be with women like that.

Feelings like men dressed as women are going to rape my child.

Feelings like that black man is a loathsome creature.

Feelings like I think that man is gonna blow me up.

Feelings like two men kissing grosses me out.

Feelings like I miss being great.

Feelings like I don’t feel in control.

And so we where we are. And I don’t feel very in control. I feel very helpless. Or I should do, shouldn’t I? Increasingly, it is becoming clear that casting a vote in an election is not enough (though, guys it does help, it is needed). No vote I have ever cast in the seven years I have been able to has contributed toward a successful result. No council seat, no MP, no MEP, no referenda to speak of has had my vote to his or her or its name. Never, not once. Consider this feeling, however: the lack of feeling. Or rather, the exhaustibility of feeling. We are deluged with feeling, all the time. We see something on social media, and we’re angry, and share it and then get on with the day, as if this was enough, or as if anger wasn’t what the original poster wanted because that’s what gets shared. Maybe we sign a petition, and then forget about it. Maybe we forget. If we aren’t immediately effected, we forget. Life rolls on, the headlines roll on. We see something on social media, and we aren’t angry, and we roll our eyes. Or we grow despondent, we grow depressed, and don’t feel anymore.

You mentioned your, our, MP and a vote he made. But did you contact him about his vote beforehand? Does anyone? Do we make good use of our representatives by not making it clear what we would like to represent them on? This isn’t just a criticism of you, but of myself too. It is easy to feel once, and to act once, feel like you’ve vented, and then forget. Not for all, but for many. Most people are spectators to history. It happens, and we dissolve in the mob. Group feeling, group thought. The questions, it seems to me, in these times, for us as individuals is: how do we keep our feelings directed so we keep acting? And keep our feelings in control? And how do we act thoughtfully, as to be effective?

I look forward to your next missive on the subject of scholastic feasts and where to find them. 

Yours

with

feeling,

Jim

Dear Jim… (#9) Re: Fear and Loathing On The Campaign Trail ’16

And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. . . .
So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.” – Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
 

More from Jon here.

Dear Jon . . . (#8) Re: On Nowhere

One thing that is being brought to the fore, what with the Scottish Independence Referendum in 2014, the recent Brexit vote, the nationalistic surge in Europe, and the electoral inferno across the pond, is the question of nationhood. Particularly the question of the so-called greatness of a nation (Trump: America needs to be made great again; Clinton: America is already great; the Brexiteers: anyone who disagrees about the means and kind of Brexit is a traitorous lefty commie bad loser who doubts Britain’s manifest greatness).

So, I wanted to think a little about how artists relate to their nation – not exhaustively, because I’m tired, but you know vaguely and broadly, until it degenerates further in a mist of thoughts. Part of this relation has to do with a tradition, a national hoard that in Britain might have as its earliest acquisitions (literature-wise) in Beowulf and the Mabinogion. Of course, the problem with such a hoard being termed national is that nations and the places they occupy and the people that live there and the languages they speak are all super in flux. Furthermore, it’s suggestive that artists stick to their ‘own’ hoard – which they don’t. Artists read and borrow internationally. All the time. To take England as an example, Vaughan Williams, the most English of composers, gathered folksongs from across the country, but also drew in a French influence from Ravel. (Vaughan Williams actually had a lot to say about the idea of ‘the English Composer’ that I can’t go into here.) Vaughan Williams’ correlative in literature (roughly) might be Thomas Hardy, a novelist and poet of profound Englishness and locality – his work was criticised by early critics for being too French. And of course, people themselves have a genetic hoard that doesn’t respect national boundaries – my surname, according to one hypothesis comes via the French Huguenots. 

Despite these confusions, we can’t deny the strangeness of a sense of belonging (if this is the right word) – Vaughan Williams’ music feels English, Thomas Hardy’s novels feel English, I feel pretty haplessly English. 

I also feel pretty European, which is why I voted the way I did in The ReferendumTM, and part of why the result feels painful. But we haven’t left Europe they tell us – the island is exactly where it was yesterday: an archipelago that is part of the European continent. Though this is to misunderstand, perhaps, what it is to be a citizen (perhaps because there is a dislike of people becoming citizens), the joy that many have from becoming a citizen – and now of course, we will, in a few years time discover what it is to lose one’s citizenship.

One of the most striking and troubling comments of the last few weeks was that of the new Prime Minister Theresa May at Conservative Party Conference: ‘If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.’ 

A citizen of the world is a citizen of nowhere. The world is, naturally, nowhere in cosmic terms. Way out in the stellar sticks.   

Another way of saying nowhere is utopia. Nowhere is the ideal place William Morris writes about, in his News From Nowhere. There is a way in which May is right: people come from somewhere (sometimes complexly, but still somewhere.) But at the same time, her words are a divisive scapegoating tactic against those who feel European (in the context of the Referendum) and/or feel a broader connection with the world – those cosmopolitan urban liberals and traitors of the worst kind. What she doesn’t see or doesn’t care to say is that this nowhere is one to which we should aspire: a utopia in which we can broaden our empathies and sympathies. That doesn’t mean abandoning a kind of localism or love of the Near, but it does mean seeing that Near is relative, and those things that seem Far (whether in space or mind) aren’t wrong simply because they may be different. 

The truth is that I am a British writer (insofar as I can be called a writer), and a English writer too. Whatever that means. It means something nebulous, necessarily I think. It is to do with an atmosphere. A set of people who live in that atmosphere. We are marked in ways I don’t think we even know, the way an accent can be invisible or unheard by those who speak with it. I live, we live, in a town in the heart of England – there’s a tree that once was thought to mark the centre itself. There are old regency buildings, a bandstand more often smoked around than music played at, and roam to the north, or the west, and you will likely find the Avon, or to the east the Leam that runs into the Avon, and the Avon runs onward through Shakespeare’s hometown – somewhere very English indeed. And though, I accept that label of Britishness or Englishness – it isn’t defining or limiting. Being considered as one thing and one thing only – that is one of the faults of nationalism: that exclusionary logic. You are this, and not that. If you are this, you can’t be that. If you are English, you can’t be black, if you are gay you can’t be Christian or Muslim. It is the kind of logic that surfaces in other places and makes it so women writers are only compared with women writers, gay writers with gay writers, Scottish writers with Scottish writers – narrowing their field of action, tightening their horizons, and lassoing them. The kind of logic that says – as the xenophobic sticker we found stuck to a traffic light near where I live, here in the heart of England – stay back or we’ll kick you back

It is clear that England, along with many other places across the world, is suffering from heart trouble. Which makes it all the more important, perhaps, to say I am proud to be a British citizen, a European citizen, and a citizen of Nowhere.

I look forward to your letter that analyses extensively Ronald Firbank's somewhat neglected novel Vainglory (1915).

Yours from Nowhere,

Jim 

 

Dear Jim… (#7) Re: We need to talk about We Need To Talk About Kevin

I got this. 

Dear Jim,
Although I did also receive your gracious letter, I thought it was particularly clever to use the stream-of-consciousness style and vague gesturing towards formal innovation to disguise the total lack of content while you complained about the rest of the internet’s lack of content.
In an effort to move these letters away from navel-gazing and hipsterish listicles complaining about listicles – because, you know, irony – I thought I’d just segue into talking about that advertisement for post-natal abortion we watched last-last week: We Need To Talk About Kevin.
 

Read more here.