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VirginiaWoolf

[In art] what is important is not only the subject matter but also the way it is treated; not only the cognitive and emotional content manifest in the work of art, but also, and especially, the effect such content is intended to have on the knowledge and the feelings of the participant.

(Ludwig Tuman in Mirror of the Divine – page 88)

In a previous sequence of posts I came to the tentative conclusion that Virginia Woolf was attempting, in her later fiction, to capture our consciousness as effectively as she could in words.

I didn’t follow this up immediately or systematically, as I had thought I might. Nothing new there then.

Instead, for reasons I’ll explain at the end of this post, I accidentally stumbled across another book that added weight to my conclusions.

Jonah Lehrer is very clearly in accord with my hesitant but hard-won conclusion (page 168):

In 1920,… Virginia Woolf announced in her diary: ‘I have finally arrived at some idea of a new form for a new novel.’ Her new form would follow the flow of our consciousness, tracing the ‘flight of the mind’ as it unfolded in time.

What he goes on to say resonates so closely with my own experience as expanded on in my parliament of selves sequence, that it felt a bit weird to read it (page 177):

. . .the head holds a raucous parliament of cells that endlessly debate what sensations and feelings should become conscious… What we call reality is merely the final draft.

He adds that, in To the Lighthouse, the character Lily notes that every brain is crowded Lehrerwith at least two different minds. We’ll catch up with that idea again in a minute when I come to discuss Pessoa.

Just in case you feel I’m cherry-picking, I have another source that points in basically the same direction This is the introduction by Elaine Showalter to Mrs Dallawoy (Penguin Classics Edition).

She explains the process in terms of a philosopher’s perspective (page xx):

Bergson had … given guidance to writers seeking to capture the effects of emotional relativity, for he had suggested that a thought or feeling could be measured in terms of the number of perceptions, memories, and associations attached to it. For Woolf the external event is significant primarily for the way it triggers and releases the inner life. … Like other modernist writers experimenting with the representation of consciousness, Woolf was interested in capturing the flux of random associations…

DallowayThis resonates with developments in modern art at the time (Page xxi):

… it can be said that in trying to show us her characters from a variety of embedded viewpoints rather than from the fixed perspective of the omniscient narrator, Woolf ‘breaks up the narrative plane… as the Cubists broke up the visual plane.

This approach has clear advantages, in her view, over more traditional methods (page xix):

[Her narrative technique] can deepen our understanding and compassion for Woolf’s characters in the way an Edwardian omniscient narration might not achieve.

I think this may act as an unintended discount of the power of free indirect speech, an approach originally pioneered by Jane Austen in English, but also used brilliantly by Ford Madox Ford in his novels The Good Soldier (1915), and the Parade’s End tetralogy (1924–28). Still her point is none the less a valid one as the Edwardian era technically ended in 1910.

I don’t follow Lehrer in his next step though (page 172):

Woolf’s writing exposes the fact that we are actually composed of ever-changing impressions that are held together by the thin veneer of identity.

Although I accept that it can sometimes feel that way, Lehrer treats it as a fact. He quotes a modernist in support (page 176):

[T.S.Eliot] believed that the modern poet had to give up the idea of expressing the ‘unified soul’ simply because we didn’t have one.

And concludes (page 182):

The self is simply a work of art, a fiction created by the brain in order to make sense of its own disunity.

I’ll come back to my doubts about that later in the sequence.

MachadoI felt after my posts on her later novels that I would be exploring Virginia Woolf more. However, I found myself drawn instead to the inscapes of three poets who have always intrigued me: Machado, Pessoa and Rilke. This was triggered by the book I acquired on my India trip: The Forty Rules of Love. My earlier blog post explained how reading that book impelled me to feel that I should revisit spiritual poetry.

I really thought I was onto a theme that I would stick with. Why wouldn’t I? For a start there is a lot about death.

For example, Machado’s young wife’s death cast a long shadow over his life and led to some of his most powerful poetry. One short example will have to suffice.

Una noche de verano
—estaba abierto el balcón
y la puerta de mi casa—
la muerte en mi casa entró.
Se fue acercando a su lecho
—ni siquiera me miró—,
con unos dedos muy finos,
algo muy tenue rompió.
Silenciosa y sin mirarme,
la muerte otra vez pasó
delante de mí. ¿Qué has hecho?
La muerte no respondió.
Mi niña quedó tranquila,
dolido mi corazón,
¡Ay, lo que la muerte ha roto
era un hilo entre los dos!

I have made a fairly literal translation of it here.

One summer evening –
the balcony and the doors open –
death came into my house.
Approaching her bed
– not even seeing me –
with slender fingers
it tore something most delicate.
Silent and blind to me
death passed by again.
‘What have you done?’
Death made no reply.
As precious as my sight,
my child stayed silent
as my heart splintered.
What death had cut was
the thread between those two.

It is simple but, in my view, profound. The same is true for much of his poetry. There are other examples of my attempts to render him in English elsewhere on my blog which seem to suggest that he was grappling constantly with the need to find meaning in his pain, another bonding influence for me.

Hence my attraction to Pessoa, in his various heteronyms or subpersonalities. In late 2016 I had been triggered to go back to Fernando Pessoa by reference to his multiple personalities in Immortal Remains by Stephen E Braude (page 170):

Apparently, Pessoa considers the heteronyms to be expressions of an inherent and deeply divided self. In fact, one of the principal themes of Pessoa’s poetry is the obscure and fragmentary nature of personal identity.

PessoaBut that was not the magnet this time. I was interested to have a closer look at his Book of Disquietude. This was partly because the strongest quality these three poets seemed to share was their isolation, hence the title I have given this sequence. Pessoa was notoriously asocial, although he could fake sociability. The Book of Disquietude records his almost unrelenting focus on his inscape (page 58):

My only real concern has been my inner life.

This was perhaps what spawned his crowded cast of sub-personalities (page 59):

I have a world of friends inside me, with their own real, individual, imperfect lives.

But it came at a price (page 54):

I bore the weariness of having had a past, the disquietude of living the present and the tedium of having to have a future.

And this price was sometimes unbearable (page 62):

. . . today I woke up very early… suffocating from an inexplicable tedium.… It was a complete and absolute tedium, but founded on something. In the obscure depths of my soul, unknown forces invisibly waged a battle in which my being was the battleground, and I shook all over from the hidden clashing.

The last of this trio, Rilke, was similarly a loner, as Richard Zenith writes in his Rilkeintroduction to the Carcanet edition of Neue Gedichte (New Poems – page 15):

All poets can do harm to their fellow men and women in their own way; although Berryman subscribed … conscientiously… to the doctrine of our needs and duties… he created social and mental havoc on a scale which makes Rilke’s withdrawal from the usual demands of love and marriage seem – as indeed it was – a scrupulous necessity for his survival as a poet, a way of exercising his own sort of moral humanity. Rilke remained deeply attached to his wife and daughter, in spite of the fact that he could not and did not live with them, and was always anxious for their welfare.

Just as this fascinating exploration was getting off the ground, decluttering led me to discover two long neglected books in what turned out to be a fatal derailing of my plan. Did I hear someone echo Lady Macbeth, whispering ‘infirm of purpose’?

Next time I’ll try and explain why the distraction of Samuel Beckett, in Cronin’s biography, and Marcel Proust, in a chapter of Lehrer’s book, turned out to be so hard to resist, after my attempt at decluttering brought them to light again. I was checking to see if my not having read them for years meant that I could take them to the charity shop. As soon as I opened them I was doomed to read them from cover to cover. But further exploration of that will have to wait a while.

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Ring and Book

After my relatively recent preoccupation with dreams it seems appropriate to republish this sequence which is a fictional attempt to project my inscape into words. Dreams and day dreams feature quite a lot! 

Leaning back against the pillows, highlighter pen in hand, I pick up my newly acquired copy of Browning’s The Ring & the Book. I’ve been so lucky to find an affordable replacement for the copy I gave away all those years ago, thinking I’d never want to read it again. Since savouring the rich switching of perspectives in Bahiyyih Nakhjavani’s The Woman Who Read Too Much, which reminded me so much of Browning’s masterpiece, I’d been itching to get my hands on another copy, and there it was – a Penguin Classic, with its colourful Millais cover, tucked away in a small second-hand bookshop at the unlikely end of the Castle Arcade in Cardiff – only £6, instead of the £25 for the previous copy I’d seen.

When I’d betrayed how keen I was, the vendor said, ‘In that case I’m doubling the price.’

As I made totroutmark-books-cardiff head for the exit he added, ‘Only kidding!’

I’d known that of course, and he knew also that I’d be back again at Troutmark Books as soon as I could.

On the way back from Cardiff on the train I’d finished the first book of the twelve. I was captivated again. Browning manages to capture the ambiguous chaos of experience without losing hold of the imperfect variations of coherence we each manage to impose on it. And he does so, as I remembered, from so many different points of view.

Now just as I am settling down to savour the second book, they start up again, my Parliament of Selves.

‘Where’s Chris?’ Emma Pancake hisses anxiously of their mystical mystery colleague, Humfreeze. Instead of sitting feet up on the table as usual she’s finding it very hard to stand still, shifting from one foot to the other when she isn’t pacing back and forth.

‘He’s deep in his last meditation of the day,’ Frederick Mires whispers. ‘He won’t hear a thing. Why does it matter, Emma?’

‘Well, he – you know who I mean, Fred?’ Mires nods.

They’re talking about me behind my back. No amount of whispering will completely shield them now I know they’re there: I can always hear enough to get their drift.

Pancake fills in the details. ‘He’s got some crackpot plan to meditate more so he can – what’s the word he uses? – reflect is it? He thinks that’ll make him a better poet. Mad, he is.’

Mires looks worried. ‘Is that what he means by reflection? I thought he just meant thinking hard. He doesn’t give me enough time to read all the books I need to anyway. If he’s going to squander more hours on this nonsense I’ll never get all the information and ideas I need to get to the bottom of consciousness. I can see why you don’t want Chris to hear this. What are we going to do? D’you think Bill will help us?’

Mires realises they will need the help of the poet manqué, Wordless, if they’re going to block my plan.

‘I’m not sure. He’s been dithering on this one. He really likes quiet moments staring at trees and lakes and stuff like that. He says it helps his poetry. I know he hates the way Chris rubbishes words but that may not be enough to get him on our side and stop this whole daft plan before it gets off the ground. I bet he thinks a bit more meditation will solve his writer’s block. Hang on, here he comes.’

The garden gate squeaks on its hinges, and a disconsolate figure in a long black coat closes it carefully behind him.

‘Hi, Bill,’ Pancake calls out.

William Wordless turns round in surprise, completely unused to such warm and friendly tones coming from that quarter.

‘What do you want?’ he mutters, trying to walk on past to the garden table.

‘Just a few quiet words, Bill,’ Mires charms in, ‘before Chris comes back to reality to join the rest of us.’

“What about?’ Wordless seems less than enthralled at the idea.

‘Have you cottoned on to what you-know-who is planning to do?’ Pancake tries to keep her voice soft and calm.

‘I think so. This reflection idea. It seems a good one to me as long as Chris doesn’t stretch it too far.’

There’s a short silence as Pancake and Mires exchange a brief glance and try to work out what best to say next.

‘I think I’ve had a brilliant idea,’ Pancake’s voice vibrates with excitement. She pauses as though not sure whether to say anymore.

‘Come on, then,’ Mires bursts out. ‘Tell us what it is. Don’t keep us on tenterhooks.’

‘Well,’ she said slightly more calmly, ‘I know we were talking about stopping him altogether, but maybe that’s not going to work. We’ll just have a wrestling match and none of us will win. Maybe we don’t need to work together to stop him doing this completely. We need instead to work together to find a way of getting him to implement it so that it benefits us all.’

‘Even Chris,’ she adds reluctantly.

Browning

This book deals with the period of Browning’s life, after the death of his wife, during which he wrote ‘The Ring & the Book.’

‘That could make sense,’ Wordless nods. ‘He’s already started reading poetry again – or pretending to. You can see him at it now. Not that I like Browning much. He’s more interested in people than he is in nature. He’d be right up your street, Fred.’

“I’m not sure I can see how I could ever benefit out of a plan like this,’ Mires grumbles.

‘You don’t really get it, do you, for all your reading and for all your degrees?’ Pancake mocks, before twigging that she needs to soften her tone if she’s going to get him on their side.

‘I know it’s hard for someone who is so much into books, and is always looking out for the next one to read so you don’t miss out on anything. It’s a bit like me with my meetings and my contacts. I’m scared that, if I don’t keep up with the crowd, I’ll get left behind and achieve nothing. But maybe, just maybe, there’s a better way to do it than that, but we won’t find out if we’re not prepared to stop and think quietly about it first. D’you follow? You must do. You believe in the scientific approach, doing experiments, that kind of thing.’

‘I understand what you mean but I’m not sure I agree,’ Mires mutters doubtfully.

‘If you go down this road, Fred, you’ll have me on your side. But if you just try and stop him and block it completely, I’ll do all I can to make sure you lose,’ Wordless asserts firmly. Then you’ll probably be worse off even than you are now.’ He clearly means every word of it.

‘OK, Bill,’ Mires says sourly after a slight pause. ‘Let’s see if we can work out something that makes sense to all of us.’

They share a long silence.

‘We’d better talk to Chris then, when he’s finished his meditation,’ Mires suggests. ‘I’m not sure how we’ll get him to work a plan that suits us, but if we can – and I think it’s a big if – I’m prepared to give it a try.’

After that things went quiet, and all I could hear was the entrancing colloquial swing of Browning’s pentameters until I fell asleep (page 65 – lines 1-4):

What, you, Sir, come too? (Just the man I’d meet.)
Be ruled by me and have a care o’ the crowd:
This way, while fresh folk go and get their gaze:
I’ll tell you like a book and save your shins.

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In advance of my republishing My Parliament of Selves it seemed a good idea to do the same with this poem to help explain references to the hospital experience.

Déjà Vu

For source of image see link

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Given my current sequence on the dangers of ideology, idealism and meaning systems, I couldn’t resist reblogging this.

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Given my latest sequence on the dangers of ideology, idealism and meaning systems, I couldn’t resist reblogging this.Black Holes in the Heart v2

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