Monthly Archives: August 2017

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 voyeur

Page from the book, by Gianfranco Sanguinetti, Miroslav Tichý: Les formes du vrai / Forms of Truth

 

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The unseen part of us

“Clarissa had a theory in those days – they had heaps of theories, always theories, as young people have. It was to explain the feeling they had of dissatisfaction; not knowing people; not being known. For how could they know each other? You met every day; then not for six months, or years. It was unsatisfactory, they agreed, how little one knew people. But she said, sitting on the bus going up Shaftesbury Avenue, she felt herself everywhere; not ‘here, here, here’; and she tapped the back of the seat; but everywhere. She waved her hand, going up Shaftesbury Avenue. She was all that. So that to know her, or any one, one must seek out the people who completed them; even the places. Odd affinities she had with people she had never spoke to, some women in the street, some man behind a counter – even trees, or barns. It ended in a transcendental theory which, with her horror of death, allowed her to believe, or say that she believed (for all her scepticism), that since our apparitions, the part of us which appears, are so momentary compared with the other, the unseen part of us, which spreads wide, the unseen might survive, be recovered somehow attached to this person or that, or even haunting certain places, after death. Perhaps – perhaps.”

Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway 

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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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Vivien Maier in Copenhagen

Vivien Maier in Copenhagen July 2017

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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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Putting life in perspective

The endless, useless urge to look on life comprehensively, to take a bird’s-eye view of ourselves and judge the dimensions of what we have or have not done: this is life as landscape, or life as a résumé. But life is incremental, and though a worthwhile life is a gathering together of all that one is, good and bad, successful and not, the paradox is that we can never really see this one thing that all of our increments (and decrements, I suppose) add up to. “Early we receive a call,” writes Czeslaw Milosz, “yet it remains incomprehensible, and only late do we discover how obedient we were.”

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


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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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