Category Archives: the unknown

The fertility of doubt

 . . . . she “trumpets doubt and ambiguity, not because we are incapable of knowing things,” but because “doubt is fertile.”

Vivien Gornick , reviews Siri Hustvedt’s, A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women in The New York Times, December 16th 2016

(from here)

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The holder of secrets

[A hospice chaplain reflects]

There are so many secrets out there in the world. I carry around some of them, secrets that have  been entrusted to me by patients and family members. Most of them are personal secrets about the teller, secrets about things they did, things they thought or felt or wished, things they didn’t think they could ever tell. Things that happened to them, things done to them when they were small, or helpless, or desperate. Secrets about the self.

But some of the secrets I’ve been privy to were elaborate, family-held secrets. Secrets with multiple participants and levels of understanding. Secrets held across generations that demanded that children be complicit in their own shame. . . .

Because that’s what secrets are about — shame.  (p 37)

Kerry Egan,On Living , Penguin 2016

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‘On a Swiss holiday in 1937, Liz Jenson’s grandmother and nineteen-year-old uncle had a row. He stormed out and vanished. Four days later, she was found dead. Eighty years on, the family is still in the grip of the mystery.’ The Guardian 26 September 2016

‘In his book Into the Silent Land, the neurologist Paul Broks writes: “When we see the brain we realise that we are, on one level, no more than meat; and on the other, no more than fiction.”

More than ever, I feel the truth of that. Death is rarely the end of any story. The dead are silent – yet they speak to us. Stories are born of our attempts to answer the questions they provoke. Where there is a void, our brains rush in to create a truth. As if by doing so we can bring back the missing, resurrect the dead’

Liz Jenson, Death in The Alps: A Double Family Puzzle. (from here)

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The patient attacks the work she is doing with her psychoanalyst

[ Suddenly V seems to have had it with me.] Dreams! I have tried and tried to show you how this works, how the mind works. But you don’t want to learn anything; you just want to go on hating me, attacking our work here, attacking yourself. I don’t know what to do; I don’t know how to help you.

He draws breath and stops abruptly. I go cold.

I don’t remember the rest of the session. Afterwards I staggered to Pine Street and collapsed on to the old sofa. My heart was beating so fast that I felt dizzy. A fish tank stood on a stand next to the sofa. I lay for a long time watching the little fishes circling near the water surface. Slowly my heart beat steadied and I  felt myself sinking into reverie.

A sudden jolt. I sat up.

A movement, a shift . . .  My heart began to thud.

A Tension, a movement . . .  I felt myself go rigid, I stopped breathing, my heart was thundering.

A movement, a release . . .

My mind opened, and my neglected dream rushed in. A flood of memories, images, sounds: blue dress, sky-blue, the sky  outside V’s window, an open window, shouting below the window, a woman is shouting . . . On and on they came, wave after wave . . .

Excitement cascaded through me. My dream! The dream that I had lugged to V tight-wrapped like a Dead Sea scroll, for him to read the hieroglyphs, as I had brought all my dreams to him over the years . . . It was mine, my living creation! My mind was a flow, a mnemonic tide, awash with vitality. I throbbed all over with the thrill of it.

I jumped up and grabbed a piece of scrap paper from the table and wrote everything down. I was panting with emotion. WhenI finished I collapsed back on the sofa. Sensations were hurtling around inside me; I couldn’t stay still. I got up and moved over to a chair on the other side of the  fish tank. ‘You all right, Barbara?’ a voice said, but I couldn’t reply.

I sat and watched the fish. Slowly my mind quieted. A goldfish peered out at me.

Then an image took shape in front of me, so corny that it made me grin. My face, V’s face, separate but overlapping, floating above the fish tank like a Valentine hologram. There he was, there I was, there  we were – ‘working together’. Look at us!

Joy flooded me. I was so delighted, so happy, I had to share this with someone. I rushed over to Gladys and told her all about it. ‘Sounds nice,’ she said bemusedly.

Barbara Taylor, The Last Asylum : A Memoir of Madness in Our Times, Penguin Books 2014, pp. 218-220

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Holding together what is torn apart

‘I Have No Choice but to Keep Looking’

Five years after the tsunami that killed tens of thousands in Japan, a husband still searches the sea for his wife . .

“We often think of searching as a kind of movement, a forward motion through time, but maybe it can also be the opposite, a suspension of time and memory. Heidegger wrote of a metaphoric pain, calling it the “joining of the rift.” It’s this rift, he said, that holds together things that have been torn apart, to perhaps create a new space where joy and sadness can find communion. This is the space I believed Takamatsu found beneath the sea, where he could feel close to his to wife, in the rift between “missing” and “deceased.” ‘  (from here) BY JENNIFER PERCY AUG. 2, 2016, New York Times Magazine

 The sea is like memory. However lost or forgotten, everything in it exists forever…

The narrator of J.G. Ballardʼs story “Prisoner of the Coral Deep” (1964) 


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Finding courage

Interviewer: During World War 11, when you established some sort of record for experiences that women simply shouldn’t encounter, you were torpedoed off the African coast . .

Margaret Bourke-White.

It was a dividing time in my life. It wasn’t only dramatic, it went much deeper than that. I had the feeling that this was bringing out the best in people. There was such extraordinary courage. I remember standing there in the moonlight, waiting to get into our lifeboat, which was flooded by the flash of the torpedo, and I thought to myself that this was one time in my life when I had no idea of what was going to happen to me, I may live or die. Then I noticed several nurses standing nearby, and the way they were trembling, and I thought, ‘This must be fear,’ and I had to admire their discipline because aside from the trembling they controlled themselves so well. I think it was then that I realized that every normal person has great courage that’s just waiting to be called on. ‘

The Penguin Book of Interviews: An Anthology from 1859 to the present Day ed Christopher Silvester, 1993

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Sharing the details of one’s life

Closeness to death made the details of personal history seem irrelevant, so she evaded his enquiry, whether sympathetic or inquisitive, while noticing that one of her black gloves had a hole in the index finger, that her skirt was too short for bony knees, and that her shins needed attending to. Her feet she had tucked out of sight.

While she was living in Hendrey Street Ada had come to her as cleaner: a squat, dour woman from the North, which part of it Eadith could never remember, if she had ever known. Unwilling to share the details of her own life, she did not expect others to offer autobiographies, unless it was their vice to expose themselves.

Patrick White, The Twyborn Affair

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‘Poetry makes nothing happen’

 . . .  W.H. Auden famously said—after seeing the Spanish Civil War—that “poetry makes nothing happen.” And it doesn’t, when the “something” desired is the end of hostilities, a government coup, an airlift, or an election victory. But those “somethings” are narrowly conceived. The cultural resonance of the characters of Greek epic and tragedy—Achilles, Oedipus, Antigone—and the crises of consciousness they embody—have been felt long after the culture that gave them birth has disappeared. Gandhi’s philosophical conception of nonviolent resistance has penetrated far beyond his own country and beyond his own century. Music makes nothing happen, either, in the world of reportable events (which is the media world); but the permanence of Beethoven in revolutionary consciousness has not been shaken. We would know less of New England without Emily Dickinson’s “seeing New Englandly,” as she put it. Books are still considering Lincoln’s speeches—the Gettysburg Address, the Second Inaugural—long after the events that prompted them vanished into the past. Nobody would remember the siege of Troy if Homer had not sung it, or Guernica if Picasso had not painted it. The Harlem Renaissance would not have occurred as it did without the stimulus of Alain Locke, Harvard’s first black Rhodes Scholar. Modern philosophy of mind would not exist as it does without the rigors of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, nor would our idea of women’s rights have taken the shape it has without Woolf’s claim for a room of her own.

Helen Vendler (from here)

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Finding a little inner space

 . . . . the world seems to be going faster and faster, and our attention seems to be more and more fragmented on these various, in various ways. And threatening the inner life. And what I would say is that poetry is a bulwark against these things. That I think people will realize, in the midst of all this, that they need some way of putting up resistance to it. And reading a poem can be an act of resistance, because it can be an act of individual consciousness in this onslaught of information that’s coming at us.

Christian Wiman, interview with Bill Myers, (from here)

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Blind to our habits

I remember when my first book came out a good friend of mine wrote to me praising it, praising it probably more than it deserved, and he noted that I used certain words a lot, words like “wind.” He, in fact, pointed out that often my poems ended with some gesture involving the wind, which I was completely unaware of. And when I went back to check this out I was appalled at how often the wind would sweep in at the end of a poem. Why hadn’t I noticed this?  Wind, silence, stone (that was a big word when I started writing). . . And my friend Jonathan Aaron, who’s a wonderful poet himself, said, “You might want to try using words that you’ve never used in a poem before. For example,” he wrote, “how about ‘machine gun’?”

And I realized with a shock, and I suppose even a kind of a thrill, that not only had I never written a poem with a machine gun in it, I’d never written a poem in which a machine gun could conceivably have appeared. So it seemed exciting to do that. Actually the poem that arose–“Attack of the Crab Monsters”– has a flamethrower rather than a machine gun.

That led to other aspects of a poem that I had been avoiding without my knowing it, like using dialogue. The first time I did that I thought, ‘Gee, you can really have people talk just as though this were a short story.”  It surprised me. Of course, there are lots of poems where that happens, and I had read many of them, but I’d never done it. Conversation also led to a certain kind of humor that started to find its way into my poems.

Lawrence Raab,

Amanda Fagan, Interview with Lawrence Raab, Booth:A Journal 29 Oct 2010 (from here) 

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