We all find in others, as we find in ourselves, certain moments of being unreal, of floating free, of not getting to grips. In some people we find it as a whole affliction, someone detached at the very root of existence. We recognise them in the workplace as people with vast schemes that never come to fruition; in relationships, as those who won’t commit to one life path over another. From the parents’ group to the football club, such people, after a period of assessment, are quietly worked around. It is part of the continuous whole-personality assessments we all make of each other, building models, revising them. The fact that we can be “wrong” about someone is a demonstration of the process.
We build such narratives of character all the time. We build them in art, in high culture and popular, and we can go back and forth between the great and the small. As well as the rule of England, Shakespeare’s Henry VI is obviously about the running of a small theatre company – you can hear Shakespeare’s bitching about how hard it is to bring it all together all the way through. The Office, a bitter plaint at the life wasted by time commodified, is about the failure of democratic socialism, from Harold Wilson to the coming of Thatcher.
People have been doing it about Malcolm Turnbull for months now, making stories that explain him out of the things they know. Turnbull is the wanker from head office, the bloke who sold them a timeshare, the guy who seems to have an agenda, teeth-clenched, bearing all before him.
Guy Rundle, Character actors, The Saturday Paper, November 18-24
I suspect our continual attraction to fairy tales, especially the classical Grimms’ stories, is based more on something adults repress and are afraid to talk about, something the Grimms knew 200 years ago but also repressed. I mean child abuse, neglect and abandonment, and not only the kind experienced at the hands of strangers but that meted out by parents themselves. Perhaps the most therapeutic aspect of these stories is the reassurance they give parents that children survive the horrors they impose on them with good will and the desire to lead a different life.
Fairy tales have always expressed an adult viewpoint on family relations and power. We tend to forget it, but adults were the ones who first told them, wrote them down and circulated them. Though the stories may ultimately defend the rights of children and underdogs, they do so only by ration-alizing the actions of the adults, who want to make certain their children are socialized to forget the abuse they have suffered.
I do not mean to exaggerate and argue that fairy tales completely rationalize abusive attitudes and behavior toward children, or that all parents abuse their children. To a certain extent these stories were told and written to reveal the shame and guilt adults feel at even fantasizing about cruelty to their children. More than anything else, I believe, they reveal what the psychoanalysts Alice Miller and James Hoyme have identified as the ambivalent feelings parents have about their children, their desire to abandon them and the shame they feel when they actually abuse them. . . .
Children know better than adults that it’s certainly not the happy ending that counts.
Jack Zipes: Children’s Books: Child Abuse and Happy Endings (from here)
The happy ending still beckons, and it is in hope of grasping it that we go on. The poet Wisława Szymborska caught the writer’s dilemma of choosing between hard realities and the longing for the happy ending. She called it “consolation.” Darwin: They say he read novels to relax, but only certain kinds—nothing that ended unhappily. If he happened on something like that, enraged, he flung the book into the fire. True or not, I’m ready to believe it. Scanning in his mind so many times and places, he’s had enough with dying species, the triumphs of the strong over the weak, the endless struggle to survive, all doomed sooner or later. He’d earned the right to happy ending, at least in fiction, with its micro-scales.
Hence the indispensable silver lining, the lovers reunited, the families reconciled, the doubts dispelled, fidelity rewarded, fortunes regained, treasures uncovered, stiff-necked neighbors mending their ways, good names restored, greed daunted, old maids married off to worthy parsons, troublemakers banished to other hemispheres, forgers of documents tossed down the stairs, seducers scurried to the altar, orphans sheltered, widows comforted, pride humbled, wounds healed, prodigal sons summoned home, cups of sorrow tossed into the ocean, hankies drenched with tears of reconciliation, general merriment and celebration, and the dog Fido, gone astray in the first chapter, turns up barking gladly in the last.
About eight years ago a girl in distress came to my door, a stranger, and asked me for help. Said she needed money – so I gave it to her. Later I found out that it was probably a scam of some sort. A lot of questions followed from this in my mind. Was the girl really desperate? Was I a fool to give her the money? But wouldn’t you have to be really desperate to come up with such a scam? The episode, tiny as it was, stayed with me. It became a fruitful sort of problem – connecting with ideas I’d had for a long time about class and desperation and ethics – and eight years later a whole novel sprang from it.
Zadie Smith Thursday 1 August 2013 The Guardian (from here)
[as a poet] . . you’re going to write that which most concerns you, which most quickens your mind, and then to turn those subjects over with as resourceful and complex a touch as possible. I am endlessly irritated by the reading of my poems as autobiography. I draw on the materials my life has given me, but what interests me isn’t that they happen to me, what interests me is that they seem, as I look around, paradigmatic. We’re all born mortal. We have to contend with the idea of mortality. We all, at some point, love, with the risks involved, the vulnerabilities involved, the disappointments and great thrills of passion. This is common human experience, so what you use is the self as a laboratory, in which to practice, master, what seem to you central human dilemmas.
Louise Glück in interview with Grace Cavalieri (from here)
My father wanted to be a writer. But he lacked certain qualities: lacked the adamant need which makes it possible to endure every form of failure: the humiliation of being overlooked, the humiliation of being found moderately interesting, the unanswerable fear of doing work that, in the end, really isn’t more than moderately interesting, the discrepancy, which even the great writers live with (unless, possibly, they attain great age) between the dream and the evidence.
Louise Glück, Education of the Poet
As an artist, Avedon told the truth about lies, and why we need them or metaphors to survive, and how people fit into their self-mythologizing like body bags, and die in them if they’re not careful. Look at his portrait of Marilyn Monroe in “Nothing Personal,” perhaps one of the most difficult pictures in the book. In an interview, Dick said Monroe had given a performance as Marilyn Monroe earlier in the shoot, laughing and giggling and dancing. But then the shoot was over, and where was she? Who was she?
Hilton Als, Richard Avedon and James Baldwin’s Joint Examination of American Identity, November 13 2017 The New Yorker
Interviewer: What would you say is the most frustrating moment for a writer and how do you overcome it?
George Saunders: I love this quote from Einstein: “No worthy problem is ever solved in the plane of its original conception.” And I try to think that any frustration I feel when writing is, essentially, the story telling me that my current vision of it is too small. It has higher aspirations for itself and my attempts to control it — my attempts to handle (and limit) it with my conceptual apparatus — is causing the story to throw a small tantrum, until I adjust my vision upwards.
It’s hard to escape the conclusion that the unconscious is laboring under a moral compulsion to educate us. (Moral compulsion? Is he serious?) . . . . The unconscious is concerned with rules but these rules will require your cooperation. The unconscious wants to give guidance to your life in general but it doesn’t care what toothpaste you use. And while the path which it suggests for you may be broad it doesn’t include going over a cliff. We can see this in dreams. Those disturbing dreams which wake us from sleep are purely graphic. No one speaks. These are very old dreams and often troubling. Sometimes a friend can see their meaning where we cannot. The unconscious intends that they be difficult to unravel because it wants us to think about them. To remember them. It doesn’t say that you can’t ask for help. Parables of course often want to resolve themselves into the pictorial. When you first heard of Plato’s cave you set about reconstructing it.
….The unconscious is just not used to giving verbal instructions and is not happy doing so.
. . . The unconscious seems to know a great deal. What does it know about itself? Does it know that it’s going to die? What does it think about that? It appears to represent a gathering of talents rather than just one. It seems unlikely that the itch department is also in charge of math. Can it work on a number of problems at once? Does it only know what we tell it? Or—more plausibly—has it direct access to the outer world? Some of the dreams which it is at pains to assemble for us are no doubt deeply reflective and yet some are quite frivolous. And the fact that it appears to be less than insistent upon our remembering every dream suggests that sometimes it may be working on itself. And is it really so good at solving problems or is it just that it keeps its own counsel about the failures? How does it have this understanding which we might well envy? How might we make inquiries of it? Are you sure?
Cormac McCarthy, The Kekulé Problem: Where did language come from? Nautilus , 20th April 2017 (from here)
“There’s this strong belief, almost a dogma, that novels are finished and reality’s outstripped fiction and therefore the only true literary form is the literary memoir, because you can only describe what happened to yourself . . But really, we’re constantly imagining and reimagining who we are. Most of what we choose to recall is selection and invention. I liked the idea of taking some facts from my life and creating a complete invention around them and in that way questioning what a memoir is.
“I wanted to reinforce the necessity and power of invented stories, because what’s happened isn’t that reality’s outstripped fiction. It’s that fiction has outstripped reality. From the claims of climate-change denialists to the £350 million per week that the Brexiteers were going to get back from the EU, to Donald Trump’s claims of the size of his inauguration crowds, none of these things were reality. They were fictions designed to bolster power and deny people the fundamental truth of the world. The fiction you get in novels speaks to that truth. Lies are a pernicious form of fiction, while novels are a liberating form of fiction that we need more than ever. In a way, my book is an argument for the necessity of novels.”
Richard Flanagan on his new novel,
Malcolm Knox The Age 27 Sept 2017 After the Booker: why Richard Flanagan isn’t playing safe