Category Archives: story

How do we understand another person?

Some years ago, reading a book of systemic psychology, I came across the idea of “the enigmatic episode.” The idea is simple enough. Two people from quite different backgrounds meet and become involved in a relationship. Attracted erotically perhaps, each fascinated by the other, they become good friends. Then something occurs—meeting the other’s parents perhaps, participating in a political movement, contemplating some particular sexual activity—that reveals to them that they have quite different outlooks on life. Not just that they don’t agree, but that they don’t, as we say, understand where the other is coming from; the other person’s position is inexplicable, perhaps threatening.

In her book Semantic Polarities and Psychopathologies in the Family, the Italian psychologist Valeria Ugazio draws on two characters in Milan Kundera’s novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being to explain the idea:

[Franz and Sabina’s] relationship is marked from the very beginning by enigmatic episodes: Kundera calls them “words misunderstood” and develops a short glossary of them…

 

Sabina asked Franz at a certain point: “Why don’t you sometimes use your strength on me?” Franz replied: “Because love means relinquishing strength.” And Sabina realized two things: firstly, that Franz’s words were noble and just; second, that with these words Franz disqualified himself in her eyes as a sexual partner.

 

Franz often told Sabina about his mother, perhaps with a sort of unconscious calculation. He imagined that Sabina would be attracted by his capacity for faithfulness and thus would have been won over by him. Franz did not know that Sabina was attracted by betrayal, and not by faithfulness.

 

When Sabina told him once about her walks in cemeteries, Franz shuddered with disgust. For him, cemeteries were “bone and stone dumps,” but for her they provided the only nostalgic memory of her country of birth, Bohemia.

 

Franz admired Sabina’s homeland. When she told him about herself and her Czech friends, Franz heard the words prison, persecution, tanks in the streets, emigration, posters and banned literature, and Sabina appeared even more beautiful because behind her he could glimpse the painful drama of her country…. Sabina felt no love for that drama. Prison, persecution, banned books, occupation and tanks were ugly words to her, devoid of the slightest romantic intrigue.

 

For Franz and Sabina to go on being a couple beyond the first phase of intense erotic attraction, each will have to open up and change, learn to see the world differently. But since, as Ugazio, points out, not everyone is eager to step outside the positions they have grown up with, many relationships will founder on the hazards of “words misunderstood.” So Franz and Sabina eventually break up. Yet that is not quite the end of the matter. After they have parted, Sabina begins to miss Franz. In the Montparnasse Cemetery she suddenly finds herself able to see, perhaps even to feel, cemeteries the way Franz did. To understand where he was coming from. Then she wishes she hadn’t been so impatient with him. The enigmatic episode has prompted a moment of growth.

Tim Parks, The Books We Don’t Understand, The New York review of Books , August 15 2017

(from here) 

The Books We Don’t Understand

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The desire to be seen

The deer stood at the edge of the forest and was miserable. He felt like there was no point in anything, like he might as well give up. I walk around here, day in and day out, the deer thought, and there’s no one who sees me. Am I invisible, or what? He didn’t think so. I walk around here and could change people’s lives if they could only see me, but no one sees me. Here I am, a hart, and no one cares. The whole point is that I am supposed to be difficult to see, I know that, I am supposed to roam around in the forest and not be seen. But it’s the very premise of my life that is now making me miserable. I want to be seen. So here I am at the edge of the forest. I am open to being seen, to being shot. If someone doesn’t see me soon, I’m going to do something drastic, I mean it. Right now it feels like I’m trapped in deerness. Oh, I would love to change everything, be someone else, something completely different.

Gunnhild Øyehaug

(from here) 

 

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Keeping a secret

[ The writer was raped  when she was twelve by a pack of boys, one of whom she loved. She  told no-one.  She  began eating and eating.]

Even as I became more and more withdrawn, my family remained strong, connected in these intimate, indelible ways. I have no doubt that my parents noticed the change in me. They would continue to notice, to worry over me, for the next twenty years and longer. But they didn’t know how to talk to me and I didn’t let them in. When they tried, I deflected, refusing to take the lifelines they offered me. The longer I kept my secret, the more attached I became to keeping my truth to myself, the more I nurtured my silence.

Roxane Gay, Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body        

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Story

. . . As I came near the Latin Quarter, a girl appeared in the crowd, walking alone. She wore a tight white crêpe dress, much whiter than flesh and she had a small, fluffy white mink stole around her shoulders and her bosom. She was very slim, and she walked like two snakes, while her hemline slithered around her knees. She was much too clever to wear a very short dress. She showed her knees, and left the rest to her audience, to us — to all of us. We all looked. Her dress was more than very tight. It was extremely tight. Nobody looked at her knees. Everybody looked at her lap. Her hair was gold and it glittered, and so did her slippers, which were of transparent plastic edged with gold. She carried a small handbag, also of transparent plastic edged with gold, but it contained nothing except a gold lipstick, which rolled about like dice. I thought at first she must have some money tucked away in the tops of her stockings or somewhere, but as far as I could make out she had nothing at all under her dress. We all stared at her, in our different ways, and from our attention she drew the air of indifference which made her a star. She cast swift glances right and left to show us how she despised us all, and then she vanished, leaving us but nothing to look at but ourselves.

Maeve Brennan, The Long-Winded Lady, Maeve Brennan (1917 –1993)[1] was an Irish short story writer and journalist. She moved to the United States in 1934 where she wrote a column for The New Yorker, The Long-Winded Lady

(from here) 

 

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Story

In an author’s note at the opening of Joyce Carol Oates’s fourth novel, them, she claims, with an apparent sincerity that many readers took as the truth, that her story was based on the confessions of a former night student of hers named Maureen Wendall. Nevertheless, it’s a surprising moment when, in the middle of her otherwise straightforward narrative, Maureen, the main character of the book, speaks directly to the author. “Dear Miss Oates. The books you taught me are mainly lies I can tell you,” Maureen writes. And it feels like a cry not just against the poverty and violence of her life, but against the story her author is trying to make that life fit into.
Tom Nissley, A Reader’s Book of Days: True Tales from the Lives and Works of Writers ..

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Memoir as the quest to understand

“To write a memoir”, [Richard] Ford claims, “and to consider the importance of another human being is to try to credit what might otherwise go unremarked”. In pondering this, however, Ford is brought up against his own “incomplete understanding”. While Between Them was undertaken in order to “remedy my longing by imagining them near”, it is just as much a record of lapses and blanks. Ford adopts a speculative mode, with provisional portraits evoked by missing details:

“And how was it for him? Driving, driving alone? Sitting in those hotel rooms, in lobbies, reading a strange newspaper in the poor lamplight … smoking?”

Oftentimes, Ford develops the scene in the negative:

“I don’t remember the time of year of his heart attack … I don’t remember it being cold or hot.”

As a consequence, what is most moving is less the story told than the nature of the inquiry: the long view taken by a son trying to imagine what his parents felt about their own lives, what these lives were like before him, and what they have become in memory.

 

Stephanie Bishop reviewing ‘Between Them’ by Richard Ford, a memoir of his parents. The Monthly June 2017 (from here) 

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Stories

“Of course that is not the whole story, but that is the way with stories; we make them what we will. It’s a way of explaining the universe while leaving the universe unexplained, it’s a way of keeping it all alive, not boxing it into time. Everyone who tells a story tells it differently, just to remind us that everybody sees it differently. Some people say there are true things to be found, some people say all kinds of things can be proved. I don’t believe them. The only thing for certain is how complicated it all is, like string full of knots. It’s all there but hard to find the beginning and impossible to fathom the end. The best you can do is admire the cat’s cradle, and maybe knot it up a bit more. History should be a hammock for swinging and a game for playing, the way cats play. Claw it, chew it, rearrange it and at bedtime it’s still a ball of string full of knots. Nobody should mind. Some people make a lot of money out of it. Publishers do well, children, when bright, can come top. It’s an all-purpose rainy day pursuit, this reducing of stories called history.”

Jeanette Winterson, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, p 91 

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So sorry

The new therapist specializes in trauma counselling. You have only ever spoken on the phone. Her house has a side gate that leads to a back entrance she uses for patients. You walk down a path bordered on both sides with deer grass and rosemary to the gate, which turns out to be locked.

“At the front door, the bell is a small round disc that you press firmly. When the door finally opens, the woman standing there yells, at the top of her lungs, Get away from my house! What are you doing in my yard? … you manage to tell her you have an appointment. You have an appointment? she spits back. Then she pauses. Everything pauses. Oh, she says, followed by oh, yes, that’s right. I am sorry.

I am so sorry, so, so sorry.

Claudia Rankine, Citizen

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The ennoblement of shame

[The philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre] interpreted Genet above all as a writer, who took control of the contingencies of his life by writing about them. But where did Genet get this ability to transform the events of his life into art, asked Sartre? Was there a definite moment when Genet, a despised and abused child abandoned by his unmarried mother and taken in by an orphanage, began to turn into a poet?

Sartre found the moment he was looking for in an incident that occurred when Genet was ten years old and living with a foster family. Such a child was expected to be humble and grateful, but Genet refused to comply, and showed his rebellion by stealing small objects from the family and their neighbours. One day, he was sticking his hands in a drawer when a family member walked in on him and shouted, ‘You’re a thief!’ As Sartre interpreted it, the young Genet was frozen in the gaze of the Other: he became an object slapped with a despicable label. Instead of feeling abashed, Genet took that label and changed its meaning by asserting it as his own. You call me a thief? Very well, I’ll be a thief.

. . . . he owned his outsider identity as thief, vagrant, homosexual and prostitute. He took control of his oppression by inverting it, and his books take their energy from that inversion . .

Sarah Bakewell, At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails, p 219

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The frettings of the very rich

When one owns four homes and has fifteen full-time gardeners perfecting one’s seven gardens and eight man-made streams, one will, of necessity, spend a great deal of time racing between homes and from garden to garden, as so it is perhaps not surprising if, one afternoon, rushing to check on the progress of a dinner one’s cook is preparing for the board of one’s favourite charity, one finds oneself compelled to take a little rest, briefly dropping to one’s knee, then both knees, then pitching forward on to one’s face and, unable to rise, proceeding here for a more prolonged rest, only to find it not restful at all, since, while ostensibly resting, one finds oneself continually fretting about one’s carriages, gardens, furniture, homes et al., all of which (one hopes) patiently await one’s return, not having (Heaven forfend) fallen into the hands of some (reckless, careless, undeserving) Other.

percival “dash” collier

George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo, p129

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