Speaking about death

There was a time I could say no one I knew well had died. This is not to suggest no one died. When I was eight my mother became pregnant. She went to the hospital to give birth and returned without the baby. Where’s the baby? we asked. Did she shrug? She was the kind of woman who liked to shrug; deep within her was an everlasting shrug. That didn’t seem like a death. The years went by and people only died on television—if they weren’t Black, they were wearing black or were terminally ill. Then I returned home from school one day and saw my father sitting on the steps of our home. He had a look that was unfamiliar; it was flooded, so leaking. I climbed the steps as far away from him as I could get. He was breaking or broken. Or, to be more precise, he looked to me like someone understanding his aloneness. Loneliness. His mother was dead. I’d never met her. It meant a trip back home for him. When he returned he spoke neither about the airplane nor the funeral.

Claudia Rankine,  Don’t Let Me Be Lonely

(from here) 

 

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Metaphor of the family

‘A family was something to fear, like a long, dark tunnel cutting through a mountain. Who knew if you would come out the other side alive?’

Josephine Wilsons, Extinctions 

(from here) 

 

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The Power of A Single Word, ‘Existence’

It was about the meaning of existence, he said. All right. She knew a little bit about existence. That was pretty well the only things she knew about, and she had learned the word for it from him. It was like the United States of America — they had to call it something. The evening and the morning, sleeping and waking. Hunger and lonelinesss and weariness and still wanting more of it. Existence. Why do I bother? He couldn’t tell her that either. But he knows, she could see it in him….

Marilynne Robinson Lila page 74

She told the old man she’d been thinking about existence, that time they were out walking, and he didn’t laugh. Could she have these thoughts if she had never learned the word? “The mystery of existence.” From hearing him preach. He must have mentioned it at least once a week. She wished she’d known about it sooner, or at least known there was a name for it She used to be afraid she was the only one in the world who couldn’t make sense of things. Why that shame had come down on her, out of nowhere.

Marilynne Robinson, Lila page 178

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The power of a single word

Think how much any individual mind, any brain, is enlarged by what we can know through books and through literature — places, people, ideas that we would never otherwise experience, things much larger than anyone could contain in his or her own person. People crave this. You go way back into antiquity and everybody is memorizing Homer, everybody is memorizing “The Epic of Gilgamesh” — works of literature that build the cultural mind and make it capacious. Most of us are not the creators of those things, but we possess ourselves of them — or they possess us of them. And each successive work of literature expands the possibilities of our language, deepening our expressive capacity. In almost every major literature there are works that make you love being human, and make you love and revere the humanity of other people. That is the great potential of any art.

Viewed this way, our language — and especially literature, that special, potent case — has incredible power. I was very struck by something that I came across in my reading of Jonathan Edwards. I recall him quoting a writer who talks about how whatever we say lives on after us, that we continue to exist so long as any word we say exists in a living mind. And that there should be two judgments: one when we die, and one when the full impact of our lives has played itself out. That is, when every word that we’ve said, for good or ill, basically ceases to be active.

We’re not in the habit of thinking of ourselves as people of influence in this way. We don’t think that if we say something cruel and destructive now, it can go down generations in terms of its consequences. But it strikes me that this is true — and the thought makes me experience a certain fear and trembling about our political life at the moment. When we speak, we should ask ourselves: How will this ultimately play out? What will be the moral consequence of the fact that so many people have resorted to such crude, cruel language? We know it won’t be neutral. We know it won’t evaporate. It’ll be in people’s minds for generations.

Coming across this idea as eloquently expressed as it was by this writer really made me stop, and think, and recognize the obvious truth of what he says — as if I’d known it before, but never felt it so sharply as when he articulated it well. I have an experience of recognition, not just in response to others’ ideas, but on the order of a single word. It happens, in my own writing, in those moments when you know there’s a perfect word, even though you have not written it yet. You cast about for it, and over time, some obscure word will come to you — your mind knows it’s there. Often, it’s a word with such an extraordinary precision that you wonder how it survived. You think, This must have come down from early modern English or Anglo-Saxon — how did it come to birth? How did it survive? Who was it that needed this word first and coined it? It’s amazing. You wonder how many people have had any use for it over the last 300 years, but there it is.

Writing should always be exploratory. There shouldn’t be the assumption that you know ahead of time what you want to express. When you enter into the dance with language, you’ll begin to find that there’s something before, or behind, or more absolute than the thing you thought you wanted to express. And as you work, other kinds of meaning emerge than what you might have expected. It’s like wrestling with the angel: On the one hand you feel the constraints of what can be said, but on the other hand you feel the infinite potential. There’s nothing more interesting than language and the problem of trying to bend it to your will, which you can never quite do. You can only find what it contains, which is always a surprise.

Marilynne Robinson on Finding the Right Word, The New York Times 22, 2017  (from here) 

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Putting out shoots of green thought

So he would write a poem of life, of all life, of what he did not know but knew . . . Little bits of coloured thought, that he had suddenly, and would look at for a long time, would go into his poem, and urgent telegrams, and the pieces of torn letters that fall out of metal baskets. He would put the windows that he had looked inside. Sleep, of course, that blue eiderdown that divides life from life. His poem was growing. It would have the smell of bread, and the rather grey wisdom of youth, and his grandmother’s kumquats, and girls with yellow plaits exchanging love-talk behind their hands, and the blood thumping like a drum, and red apples, and a little whisp of white cloud that will swell into a horse and trample the whole sky once it gets the wind inside it.

As his poem mounted in him he could not bear it, or rather what was still his impotence. And after a bit, not knowing what else to do but scribble on the already scribbled trees, he went back to the house in which his grandfather had died, taking with him his greatness, which was still a secret.

So that in the end there were the trees. The boy walked through them with is head drooping as he increased in stature. Putting out shoots of green thought. So that, in the end, there was no end.

Patrick White, The last few paragraphs of his novel The Tree of Man

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Reading

Sometimes when you read, it’s like certain sentences strike home and knock you flat. It’s as if they say everything you have tried to say, or tried to do, or everything you are. As a rule, what you are is one simmering, endless longing.

Gunnhild Øyehaugm Knots (from here) 

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The beauty on the other side of damage

[review of a book of poetry ]

The book is wild in both imagery and language, full of fury and incredulity; reading its descriptions of love and bodies is like trying to see flowers through bullet-riddled glass—the beauty on the other side of damage.

The New Yorker September 11, 2017 Hilton Als: Frank Bidart’s Poetry of Saying the Unsaid A collection of poems about the gay body, in childhood and adulthood.

from here

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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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