Doubts, contradictions, uncertainties

Montaigne accepts, as no other writer had, that our inner lives are double, that all emotions are mixed, and that all conclusions are inconclusive. “In sadness there is some alloy of pleasure,” he writes in the essay called, tellingly, “We Taste Nothing Purely.” “There is some shadow of delicacy and quaintness which smileth and fawneth upon us, even in the lap of melancholy. . . . Painters are of opinion that the motions and wrinkles in the face which serve to weep serve also to laugh. Verily, before one or other be determined to express which, behold the pictures success; you are in doubt toward which one inclineth. And the extremity of laughing intermingles itself with tears.” Having two emotions at once is better than having one emotion repeatedly.

By giving life to this truth, Montaigne animates for the first time an inner human whose contradictions are identical with his conscience. “If I speak diversely of myself, it is because I look diversely upon myself,” he writes, in “On the Inconstancy of Our Actions.” In the writer’s soul, he maintained, all contrarieties are found . . . according to some turn or removing, and in some fashion or other. Shame-faced, bashful, insolent, chaste, luxurious, peevish, prattling, silent, fond, doting, laborious, nice, delicate, ingenious, slow, dull, forward, humorous, debonair, wise, ignorant, false in words, true speaking, both liberal, covetous, and prodigal. All these I perceive in some measure or other to be in mine, according as I stir or turn myself. . . . We are all framed of flaps and patches, and of so shapeless and diverse a contexture, that every piece and every moment playeth his part.

Adam Gopnik,  reviewing a biography of Montaigne in The New Yorker,     (from here) 

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Fiction and reality

A biographer reflects  on George Johnston’s novel, My Brother Jack.

‘When George Johnston was calling on his memories of Jack’s deeds for the novel, he inflated everything about him, because he was attempting to build a larger-than- life character, an Australian mythic hero, out of the best qualities he identified in his brother. It was central to his character’s heroism that he should possess massive courage in the face of adversity. Jack found the novel embarrassing and ‘wrong’, when he read it, because he had not done many of the things he believed were being attributed to him. He missed the point: George was not trying to ‘tell it as it was’, but was re-creating the past in accordance with his personal vision.

Garry Kinnane, George Johnston 

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                                                 Psychoanalysts say

shame ruins your capacity for reverie by making cracks

in the mind where it is dangerous for thought to wander.

                                                      Anne Carson, Shame Stack from Float

(from here) 

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Doubt in literature

. . . all the most convincing works of literature must possess an element of doubt. That is the calling card with which they delicately persuade us to open our doors to them; it is the proof that they do not intend to deceive us. And if this is true at the beginning of a novel, a story or a poem, it is even more noticeably true  at the end. A question will always hover over the authoritative author’s conclusions, so that they are not merely conclusions, but also an opening out, a releasing of other possibilities.

Wendy Lesser, Why I Read, p 100

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The language of film criticism

Hitchcock  hated the language of film criticism which evolved with the century; when Hitchcock helped his granddaughter with an essay she was writing on Shadow of a Doubt, his favourite of all his films, she only got a C grade. “That’s the best I can do,” he shrugged.

(from here) 

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A dead goldfish

John Cheever, . . .  wrote to a friend about a visit by [William] Maxwell:

“Bill, as you must have gathered, is terribly fastidious. He once called to say that he was coming for tea. Mary went wild and cleaned, waxed, arranged flowers, etc. When he arrived everything seemed in order. Mary poured the tea. The scene was a triumph of decorum, until Harmon, an enormous cat, entered the room, carrying a dead goldfish. It seemed to be our relationship in a nutshell.”  (from here) 

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Botanical Gardens, Melbourne,  Jan 2017

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The restlessness of transition

William James said that our inner lives are fluid and restless and always in transition, and that our experience “lives in the transitions”. . . . it is only a short  step from saying that our experience  “lives in the transitions” to saying that one ought to seek our and even provoke these transitions: if I am closest to God when I am most in crisis, then bring on the whirlwind; if I am most alive when love is beginning or ending, then let this marriage die, let this affair take flame, let me let myself go.

The truth in James’s idea inheres in that “always.” If our inner lives are always in transition, then our goal should be to acquire and refine a consciousness that is capable of registering the most minute changes in sensation, feeling, faith, self. Unless we become aware of the transitions that are occurring all the time within us, unless we learn to let experience play upon our inner lives as on a finely tuned instrument, we will try to manufacture inner intensity from the outside, we will bang our very bones to roust our own souls. We crave radical ruptures when we have allowed the nerves of our inner lives to go numb. But after those ruptures — the excitement or the tragedy, the pleasure or the pain—the mind returns to what it was, the soul quicksilvers off from the pierce of experience and the kingdom of boredom, which could be the kingdom of God, begins the clock-tick toward its next collapse.


Christian Wiman, My Bright  Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer

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A summer day

                                                                                                                                   Botanical Gardens, Melbourne, 2 January 2017

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Looking at a photo

           A Summer Garden BY LOUISE GLÜCK

Several weeks ago I discovered a photograph of my mother

sitting in the sun, her face flushed as with achievement or triumph.

The sun was shining. The dogs

were sleeping at her feet where time was also sleeping,

calm and unmoving as in all photographs.

I wiped the dust from my mother’s face.

Indeed, dust covered everything; it seemed to me the persistent

haze of nostalgia that protects all relics of childhood.

In the background, an assortment of park furniture, trees and shrubbery.

The sun moved lower in the sky, the shadows lengthened and darkened.

The more dust I removed, the more these shadows grew.

Summer arrived. The children

leaned over the rose border, their shadows

merging with the shadows of the roses.

A word came into my head, referring

to this shifting and changing, these erasures

that were now obvious—

it appeared, and as quickly vanished.

Was it blindness or darkness, peril, confusion?

Summer arrived, then autumn. The leaves turning,

the children bright spots in a mash of bronze and sienna.

(from here) 

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