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Posts Tagged ‘Hilary Mantel’

My recent posts on poetry made it seem worthwhile republishing this pair of posts from 2011.
At the moment, while my conscious intentions are directed somewhere completely different, I find myself coming back again and again to the relationship between words and experience. I now feel the need to revisit the area of writing and experience from another angle.

I was brought up short the other day when I read the following in Hilary Mantel‘s Giving Up the Ghost (page 103):

Words are a blur to me; a moth’s wing, flitting about the lamp of meaning. My own thoughts go at a different speed from that of human conversation, about two and a half times as fast, so I am always scrambling backwards through people’s speech, to work out which bit of which question I am supposed to be answering. I continue my habit of covert looking, out of the corner of my eye, and take up the art of sensing through the tips of my fingers.

The acuteness of her awareness of how she relates to other people’s speech and her ability to convey that awareness to us are truly remarkable gifts or skills. If you think it’s innate you’d say its a gift but if you think its learned you might say it’s a skill: right now I’m not too bothered which. And in fact it’s not that aspect of what I’ve quoted that really grabbed my attention but I just couldn’t resist commenting on it.

No, what really hooked me was the first sentence:

Words are a blur to me; a moth’s wing, flitting about the lamp of meaning.

It seems so right as a description of her experience, and yet it’s so far away from my own way of experiencing the matter. Words seem so clear to me but my meaning is blurred. I have to somehow see past their brightness to something shadowy that lies behind it. And behind that shaded shape is reality itself – elusive, indefinable, inescapable.

When I read the kind of great creative prose or brilliant poetry to which I most strongly respond, I am experiencing someone as having been able to put their language on a dimmer switch for long enough to sense the reality behind what they might have thought they meant and then hold on to what they detected long enough again to find the right words to describe it.

And this is about the fusion of music and meaning, sometimes on the very edge of sense. If they are writing about something too far beyond my own experience at the time the music might be the only thing that keeps me entranced. I struggle with much modern poetry because it lacks the music that might attract me, hold my attention, reward it and give me some hope that the cryptic clues buried in the verbiage might eventually make sense.

It might help to use an example in the next post. And I’m not going to make it easy on myself by choosing a ‘classic’ from the past. I’ll pick a modern poem to try and make my point clearer. A good choice, I think, would be a relatively accessible poem by Don Paterson called The Swing from his collection Rain, whose fusion of music and sense keeps me engaged and moves me deeply.

If I can manage to bring myself to tackle it, I might also look in a later post at one of the two poets that I find particularly challenging – the Basil Bunting of Briggflatts or Geoffrey Hill

Edgar feigning madness to Lear

All too often, rather than holding up a mirror to nature, they seem to delight in smashing it and handing me a bundle of fragments  with a gesture that says, ‘Here you are. Stick this lot back together again and mind you don’t cut yourself.’ While poets are not agony aunts with the job of providing comforting insights into how to handle life, I’d rather they didn’t vex me with tormenting verbal puzzles that seem far more obscure to me than most of the testing ambiguities and uncertainties of life itself. I can accept the need to represent the chaotic uncertainty of reality in some of its most profound and important aspects by obscurity in the poem. Surely though that has to be offset by shafts of illumination that place it in a context that gives us enough help to discern some meaning in the apparent madness, rather as happens with Edgar’s babblings in King Lear.

Anyway more about Paterson tomorrow! In the end I might just give up the ghost and leave it at that.

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My rediscovery of Keats’s close affinity with Buddhism caused me to trawl back through my posts on poetry to see what else I’d written. This pair of posts from 2011 paves the way for my consideration of brick wall poetry next week.
At the moment, while my conscious intentions are directed somewhere completely different, I find myself coming back again and again to the relationship between words and experience. I now feel the need to revisit the area of writing and experience from another angle.

I was brought up short the other day when I read the following in Hilary Mantel‘s Giving Up the Ghost (page 103):

Words are a blur to me; a moth’s wing, flitting about the lamp of meaning. My own thoughts go at a different speed from that of human conversation, about two and a half times as fast, so I am always scrambling backwards through people’s speech, to work out which bit of which question I am supposed to be answering. I continue my habit of covert looking, out of the corner of my eye, and take up the art of sensing through the tips of my fingers.

The acuteness of her awareness of how she relates to other people’s speech and her ability to convey that awareness to us are truly remarkable gifts or skills. If you think it’s innate you’d say its a gift but if you think its learned you might say it’s a skill: right now I’m not too bothered which. And in fact it’s not that aspect of what I’ve quoted that really grabbed my attention but I just couldn’t resist commenting on it.

No, what really hooked me was the first sentence:

Words are a blur to me; a moth’s wing, flitting about the lamp of meaning.

It seems so right as a description of her experience, and yet it’s so far away from my own way of experiencing the matter. Words seem so clear to me but my meaning is blurred. I have to somehow see past their brightness to something shadowy that lies behind it. And behind that shaded shape is reality itself – elusive, indefinable, inescapable.

When I read the kind of great creative prose or brilliant poetry to which I most strongly respond, I am experiencing someone as having been able to put their language on a dimmer switch for long enough to sense the reality behind what they might have thought they meant and then hold on to what they detected long enough again to find the right words to describe it.

And this is about the fusion of music and meaning, sometimes on the very edge of sense. If they are writing about something too far beyond my own experience at the time the music might be the only thing that keeps me entranced. I struggle with much modern poetry because it lacks the music that might attract me, hold my attention, reward it and give me some hope that the cryptic clues buried in the verbiage might eventually make sense.

It might help to use an example in the next post. And I’m not going to make it easy on myself by choosing a ‘classic’ from the past. I’ll pick a modern poem to try and make my point clearer. A good choice, I think, would be a relatively accessible poem by Don Paterson called The Swing from his collection Rain, whose fusion of music and sense keeps me engaged and moves me deeply.

If I can manage to bring myself to tackle it, I might also look in a later post at one of the two poets that I find particularly challenging – the Basil Bunting of Briggflatts or Geoffrey Hill

Edgar feigning madness to Lear

All too often, rather than holding up a mirror to nature, they seem to delight in smashing it and handing me a bundle of fragments  with a gesture that says, ‘Here you are. Stick this lot back together again and mind you don’t cut yourself.’ While poets are not agony aunts with the job of providing comforting insights into how to handle life, I’d rather they didn’t vex me with tormenting verbal puzzles that seem far more obscure to me than most of the testing ambiguities and uncertainties of life itself. I can accept the need to represent the chaotic uncertainty of reality in some of its most profound and important aspects by obscurity in the poem. Surely though that has to be offset by shafts of illumination that place it in a context that gives us enough help to discern some meaning in the apparent madness, rather as happens with Edgar’s babblings in King Lear.

Anyway more about Paterson tomorrow! In the end I might just give up the ghost and leave it at that.

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At the moment, while my conscious intentions are directed somewhere completely different, I find myself coming back again and again to the relationship between words and experience. I now feel the need to revisit the area of writing and experience from another angle.

I was brought up short the other day when I read the following in Hilary Mantel‘s Giving Up the Ghost (page 103):

Words are a blur to me; a moth’s wing, flitting about the lamp of meaning. My own thoughts go at a different speed from that of human conversation, about two and a half times as fast, so I am always scrambling backwards through people’s speech, to work out which bit of which question I am supposed to be answering. I continue my habit of covert looking, out of the corner of my eye, and take up the art of sensing through the tips of my fingers.

The acuteness of her awareness of how she relates to other people’s speech and her ability to convey that awareness to us are truly remarkable gifts or skills. If you think it’s innate you’d say its a gift but if you think its learned you might say it’s a skill: right now I’m not too bothered which. And in fact it’s not that aspect of what I’ve quoted that really grabbed my attention but I just couldn’t resist commenting on it.

No, what really hooked me was the first sentence:

Words are a blur to me; a moth’s wing, flitting about the lamp of meaning.

It seems so right as a description of her experience, and yet it’s so far away from my own way of experiencing the matter. Words seem so clear to me but my meaning is blurred. I have to somehow see past their brightness to something shadowy that lies behind it. And behind that shaded shape is reality itself – elusive, indefinable, inescapable.

When I read the kind of great creative prose or brilliant poetry to which I most strongly respond, I am experiencing someone as having been able to put their language on a dimmer switch for long enough to sense the reality behind what they might have thought they meant and then hold on to what they detected long enough again to find the right words to describe it.

And this is about the fusion of music and meaning, sometimes on the very edge of sense. If they are writing about something too far beyond my own experience at the time the music might be the only thing that keeps me entranced. I struggle with much modern poetry because it lacks the music that might attract me, hold my attention, reward it and give me some hope that the cryptic clues buried in the verbiage might eventually make sense.

It might help to use an example in the next post. And I’m not going to make it easy on myself by choosing a ‘classic’ from the past. I’ll pick a modern poem to try and make my point clearer. A good choice, I think, would be a relatively accessible poem by Don Paterson called The Swing from his collection Rain, whose fusion of music and sense keeps me engaged and moves me deeply.

If I can manage to bring myself to tackle it, I might also look in a later post at one of the two poets that I find particularly challenging – the Basil Bunting of Briggflatts or Geoffrey Hill

Edgar feigning madness to Lear

All too often, rather than holding up a mirror to nature, they seem to delight in smashing it and handing me a bundle of fragments  with a gesture that says, ‘Here you are. Stick this lot back together again and mind you don’t cut yourself.’ While poets are not agony aunts with the job of providing comforting insights into how to handle life, I’d rather they didn’t vex me with tormenting verbal puzzles that seem far more obscure to me than most of the testing ambiguities and uncertainties of life itself. I can accept the need to represent the chaotic uncertainty of reality in some of its most profound and important aspects by obscurity in the poem. Surely though that has to be offset by shafts of illumination that place it in a context that gives us enough help to discern some meaning in the apparent madness, rather as happens with Edgar’s babblings in King Lear.

Anyway more about Paterson on Thursday! In the end I might just give up the ghost and leave it at that.

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'Void Devouring the Gadget Era' by Mark Tobey

Famous Brain Scan Joke (for original see link)

Everyman went to see the doctor to get the results of his brain scan.

The doctor said: “Mr. Everyman, I have some bad news for you. First, we have discovered that your brain has two sides: the left side and the right side.”

Everyman interrupted, “Well, that’s normal, isn’t it? I thought everybody had two sides to their brain?”

The doctor replied, “That’s true, Mr. Everyman. But your brain is very unusual because on the left side there isn’t anything right, while on the right side there isn’t anything left.”

Why have I changed the joke when the whole point is to poke fun at one man in particular? Well, for me the whole point is that the joke is on all of us. If Iain McGilchrist is right, and I believe he is, our society has placed almost all its faith in left brain functioning and denigrates what the right brain does as flakey and untrustworthy. And language has been almost totally commandeered by the left brain that constantly mistakes its descriptions – its maps – for reality itself, an error that is placing us all in danger. For a fuller discussion of this crucial issue see The Master and His Emissary link at the bottom of this post. To shorthand it somewhat, we increasingly tend to treat living beings as though they were machines.

Creative writing, and most especially poetry (currently perhaps the least popular art form in the West), represents one of the best ways, alongside spiritual practice, of re-establishing contact with the right side of the brain. This is the way out of the cul-de-sac we ended up in yesterday in the previous post.

To take Sir Phillip Sidney somewhat out of context:

So while pregnant with the desire to speak, helpless with the birth pangs,
Biting at my pen which disobeyed me, beating myself in anger,
My Muse said to me ‘Fool, look in your heart and write.’

So, maybe the best we can do is grope towards a better sense of reality, not just through language and not just through our senses, but also through our deepest intuitions as well.

Fay Weldon in her contrapuntal novel, Kehua, which is both a novel and a reflection on the experience of writing a novel, sheds some intriguing light on this issue:

 The sensation is that you don’t exactly write novels – you simply unfold them, or fish them up from a well, or hook them down from the sky.

In her interview on the Culture Show Hilary Mantel develops this in her different way:

It’s in invisible worlds that the writer spends her time.

In her engaging but unsettling memoir Giving up the Ghost another quote reveals in part what is unsettling but fascinating about her art (page 231):

What’s to be done with the lost, the dead, but write them into being.

All this makes writing seem more like a ghostly, or even ghastly form of gardening. Getting an idea is a bit like planting a seed. You tend it but it has a life of its own to some degree. You wait and watch for the shoots to appear on the surface of your mind from some deeper level. You can’t force it but you must tend them, work at it, create the right conditions as far as you can. But every piece has its own growing season though.

Hilary Mantel again:

Just because you have an idea for a story doesn’t mean you’re ready to write it. You may have to creep towards it, dwell with it, grow up with it: perhaps for half your lifetime.

(Op. cit.: page 69-70)

A friend of mine carries characters around in his head for years waiting for the right time to get them down on paper. Sometimes, I suspect, you might just wait too long. I wonder what happens to the dead who never get written into being?

In the end though, it seems to me, that this sensitivity, patience and humility in the face of the right-brain’s unseen and unpredictable processes of reality testing are far better for us as individuals and communities than the fast-fire gung-ho certainty characteristic of the left-brain’s arrogance which is so typical of both scientism and religious fundamentalism and which risks wrecking itself and many of the rest of us on the rocks of its own unrelentingly blind dogmatism.

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William Golding (for source of image see link)

William Golding (for source of image see link)

Yesterday we looked at revelation.

In John Carey’s biography of William Golding we find a description of the writer’s task that might seem to put him or her at odds with any kind of religious revelation (page 210-211). It describes Golding’s view of the matter:

The task of a writer, he insists, is to free the mind from the shackles of habit and creed. Belief systems such as Christianity and Marxism impose ‘rigid patterns’ on reality which deaden the mind. ‘The difference between being alive and being an inorganic substance is just this proliferation of experience, this absence of pattern.’ Accordingly, a writer must have ‘an intransigence in the face of accepted beliefs – – political, religious, moral – any accepted belief.’ If he takes an accepted belief for granted then ‘he ceases to have any use in society at all.’ In effect his job is to ‘scrape the labels off things,’ exposing the reality beneath.

It is worth reminding ourselves here of the distinction Paul Lample makes in his book ‘Revelation & Social Reality.’ He explains (page 10) that for Bahá’ís ‘[r]evelation creates consensus around new truths so that we, the co-creators of reality, can begin to transform the existing social order.’ Language is a key component in this process in that it both shapes and is shaped by social reality. There is a crucial distinction, he feels (page 21), between Revelation as the undiluted Word of God and religion as the way the Word is applied.

This means that the descriptions we evolve of what the revelation means to us may not be the same as the revelation itself. In fact our descriptions of any kind are pretty treacherous as the last two posts in the list at the end explain.This leaves room for an artist of integrity to dissent from any of the orthodoxies he finds around him. However, no one ordinary person’s idea of the truth, no matter how great an artist (s)he may, is likely to capture the whole of reality undistorted, so we would be wise not to swallow what they write, paint or film uncritically.

Giving up the GhostHilary Mantel deals with this in her typical drily humorous way in her excellent memoir (Giving up the Ghost – page 4):

Remember what Orwell says, that good prose is like a window-pane. Concentrate on sharpening your memory and peeling your sensibility. Cut every page you write by at least one-third. Stop constructing those piffling little similes of yours. Work out what it is you want to say. Then say it in the most direct and vigorous way you can.

(Not that she follows her own advice, by the way, as she goes on to admit.)

What she says next provides the crucial undercutting of her argument (ibid):

Besides, window-pane prose is no guarantee of truthfulness. Some deceptive sights are seen through glass, and the best liars tell lies in plain words.

She is resolutely sceptical of any facile notion that the truth is easy to access. She was interviewed recently on the Culture Show (only a few clips are available still) and had this to say about history and fiction that is as good an example as any of her take on things:

As soon as we learn any history we should learn to be suspicious of the history. we should learn to question the historical record all the time.

“I think I know this, but why do I think I know it? Who’s telling me this and who wants me to believe it? Who starts the riots that lead to the fall of the Bastille? Why him? Why then? Why that particular moment? Could it have been someone else? And if it could’ve been why wasn’t it? These questions perplex me and intrigue me and I come back to them time and time again.”

In the end we have to accept that ‘reality’ is not easily accessible – not through language but not even through the senses either.

A recent book on the nature of the universe we inhabit demolishes any feeling that we might have that what we sense reliably conveys exactly what’s out there. Take hearing for example (Page 20):

Air that puffs 15 times a second is not intrinsically different from air that pulses 30 times, yet the former will never result in a human perception of sound because of the design of our neural architecture

What is true for hearing is true for all the senses. We’ll be returning in another post to further implications of their position.

And they conclude (ibid.):

In short, an observer, an ear, and a brain are every bit as necessary for the experience of sound as are the air pulses. The external world and consciousness are correlative. And a tree that falls in an empty forest creates only silent air pulses—tiny puffs of wind.

So we’ll look tomorrow at where that apparent impasse might leave us.

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