He knew, as an artist, that the only bit of a woman which nowadays escapes being ready-made and ready-known cliché is the appley part of her (205).
- D.H. Lawrence, from essay “Cézanne” in Writers on Artists
Love is like this. The other day I found myself sitting on the library floor, in between the stacks, pulling every Cézanne book I saw off of the shelves. Okay, I didn’t mysteriously find myself there. But in my defense, it was an unusually slow day at the library. For the first time that I have ever worked there I had shelved every single item and then alphabetized every thing else that had to wait (DVDs that needed security casings, for instance) I was at an awkward impasse- finally I mustered the courage to ask if it would be alright if I read, while maintaining a veneer of readiness should work arrive, of course.
He could not masturbate, in paints or words. And that is saying a very great deal, today; today, the great day of the masturbating consciousness, when the mind prostitutes the sensitive responsive body, and just forces the reactions. The masturbating consciousness produces all kinds of novelties, which thrill for the moment, then go very dead (203).
What joy! I was finally able to get to the essay by D.H. Lawrence on Cézanne that had been the reason I had checked the book out (the book: Writers on Artist is one I came across whilst shelving; I couldn’t resist a perusal, and Lawrence settled the thing. I would have to read it. It is a wonderful compilation edited by Daniel Halpern of some forty essays). The preceding essay had also focused on Cézanne- actually it was not so much an essay as parts of letters written by Rilke to his wife,Clara, relating his frequent, lovingly obsessive visits to the Salon. It was marvelous. Rilke makes me love life, love writing, love art, and not worry so much about the essay length letters I inflict upon my friends…. But - Lawrence. I finished his essay and (may have) let a skipping gait take me deep into the stacks (working in the Arts and Music section has its benefits).
Cézanne felt it in paint, when he felt for the apple. Suddenly he felt the tyranny of the mind, the white, worn-out arrogance of the spirit, the mental consciousness, the enclosed ego in its sky-blue heaven self-painted. He felt the sky-blue prison (201).
Sitting on the floor, I took down one of the large heavy books and it fell open to Apples and Biscuits. I gasped. It’s not that I haven’t seen Cézanne’s work, of course I have seen many works in books, some works in actuality, but…something about this one - I could have spent hours gazing at it- so much for my veneer of readiness- I sank into the floor.
But we have to remember, in his figure paintings, that while he was painting the appleyness he was also deliberately painting out the so-called humanness, the personality, the “likeness,” the physical cliché.[…] Try as he might, woman remained a known ready-made cliché object to him […] Except his wife - and in his wife he did at least know the appelyness (206).
And what woman doesn’t want her appleyness known? Indeed, what person doesn’t long to share one’s appleyness with another? Curiously this particular painting was not to be found in any of the other books. But this was the one. This one sang sweetly right into my ear, piercing my soul. The hard floor and artificial light fell away as the apples teased, excited and calmed my heart in imperceptible turns. The joyful humor of the domesticity of the plate of biscuits, and that beautiful wall…it was love at first sight.
It was not Zola who understood what the point was; Balzac had sensed long ahead that, in painting, something so tremendous can suddenly present itself, which no one can handle. -Rainer Maria Rilke ”The Cézanne Inscape”
Maybe this comes close (it certainly does if you have to pleasure to sing it, as I will this Saturday):
That appleyness is our very worth, the core of our humanity, the rounded ripe beauty of our souls. When it is discovered and felt, a sort of primordial roar is released. When we see it or hear it, the tremendous truth is awing. The veneer, cliché, and inauthentic are blasted away. The struggle to maintain what we instinctively feel in the face of cynical convention or mawkish insincerity never really ends - if we can just maintain some space of clarity within (through music, through art) so that when we come across the appelyness - we know we were right all along.
It’s the real appelyness, and you can’t imitate it. Every man must create it new and different out of himself: new and different (Lawrence 206).
System 1 is gullible and biased to believe, System 2 is in charge of doubting and unbelieving, but System 2 is sometimes busy, and often lazy.
- Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow (81)
I spent the greater part of my working hours this past week removing books from the library shelves and stamping them “withdrawn.” Feeling something of the executioner, I began to muse on the psychological effect it might have on me to stamp the word, “withdrawn” “withdrawn” “WITHDRAWN” over and over again.
One further limitation of System 1 is that it can not be turned off. If you are shown a word on the screen in a language you know, you will read it (25)
Daniel Kahneman’s fascinating book, Thinking Fast and Slow names the differing ways of thinking, respectively, System 1 and System 2. The part we know and believe to be firmly in control is System 2, all activity that requires conscious thought lives in this system. The unfortunate news that Kahneman shares in his book is the overwhelming evidence that System 1 is in fact (smugly, no doubt) running the show. System 1 is so firmly in control of our reactions, impressions, and judgements, that it hardly need deign to acknowledge its domination.
The technical definition of heuristics is a simple procedure that helps find adequate, though often imperfect, answers to difficult questions. The word comes from the same root as eureka (98).
Admittedly heuristics is a good thing. We are not after all computers and lack the ability to algorithmically function in real time. Lord knows I’m all for split second, heuristics. Or so I thought. I don’t want to make an enemy of my own brain, but the fact that System 1’s default attitude is to believe, always to believe, concerns me.
declarations of high confidence mainly tell you that an individual has constructed a coherent story in his mind, not necessarily that the story is true (212).
Halo effect, illusions of validity, hindsight effect, coherence, over confidence, context dependency- the list of pit falls, oversights, blind spots and standard issue mental sloth is depressing me. Standing in the back of the stacks with my red stamp - withdrawn, withdrawn, withdrawn, the frame of my life takes on a rather pathetic hue. What might I be feeling if the word was “discard?” I shudder to think. But never mind “discard,” the depressing point, according to Kahneman is that if the word had been “keep” or “valued” I probably would not have even noticed. It doesn’t fit into my story.
A single cockroach will completely wreck the appeal of a bowl of cherries, but a cherry will do nothing at all for a bowl of cockroaches (302).
As the acidic paper of the books I remove from the shelves flake and fall, strewing my hair and the floor with brittle specks of lonely confetti, I force System 2 to step it up. How we frame events, the tension between our remembering selves and our experiencing selves makes a real difference to the actual quality of our lives. Kahneman mentions movements and policies, at the end of the book, that aim to help us help ourselves when dealing with all of our innate (and not always negative) judgment disabilities. And that is some cause for celebration. For hope.
Unless there is an obvious reason to do otherwise, most of us passively accept decision problems as they are framed and therefore rarely have an opportunity to discover the extent to which our preferences are frame-bound rather than reality-bound (367).
An admission that we know nothing, yet relentlessly protect our belief systems against reality, is a healthy thing to keep in mind - I’m talking to you System 1! Understanding how profound our mental biases and tendencies are leaves me feeling that much more like useless confetti helplessly blowing about- it’s no use! but, never fear- my optimism bias kicks in and I just KNOW that acceptance is the first step! All is well, all goes well, all goes as well as it possibly could - oh dear, I must confess my cynicism bias can kick my optimism bias’s ass any day of the week…..In the meantime I take some solace in the ineluctable certainly that, it is not just me. My predictable predilection of perception fallibility is matched only by yours. Solidarity, my fellow humans!
Nothing in life is as important as you think it is when you are thinking about it (402)
Bon à Rien
The girl was not too deeply in love with Hector; but imagination counts for something (75, In and Out of Old Natchitoches)
-Kate Chopin, Bayou Folk
Kate Chopin’s collection of short stories, Bayou Folk is comprised of some 23 stories most of which take place, as the title suggests, amongst the Bayou folk: the Creole people in and about New Orleans. She writes about her topic of choice- men and women aching for love under the limiting constraints (for both sexes) of living in a man’s world. In Sabine confronts a woman’s happiness cruelly destroyed by her marriage to one man, and then saved by another:
He was wondering if it would really be a criminal act to go then and there and shoot the top of Bud Aiken’s head off. He himself would hardly have considered it a crime, but he was not sure of how others might regard the act (88, In Sabine)
But hardly any of her characters are ever autonomous enough to enjoy the freedom to love without regard to anything but one’s own insisting heart- and what is remarkable about Chopin’s writing in the late 19th century is her particularly keen voice describing the devastating effects this has on the subordinate woman of her age.
But he was not jesting. She saw it at once in the glance that penetrated her own; in the quiver of his sensitive lip and the quick beating of a swollen vein in his brown throat […] She had suddenly become a woman capable of love or sacrifice (307, A Lady of Bayou St. John).
The stories that make up Bayou Folk all touch on the poignancy of love and heartbreak but none are near the level of Chopin’s masterpiece, The Awakening - that book simply slays.
She’s a vrai sauvage, that’s w’at (186, Loka).
Nevertheless, the delightful vernacular of the characters populating these stories, the vibrancy of the people and landscape, taken together with Chopin’s supreme talent for articulating what if feels like to fall in love, or to be heartbroken, or just plain broken, is unique and lovely.
If she had hung for hours upon his neck telling him that she loved him, he could not have known it more surely than by this sign. Azenor felt as if some mysterious bond had all at once drawn them heart to heart and made them one. (191, Love on the Bon-Dieu)
Love that crosses the boundaries of what is euphemistically called “polite society” is at the heart of Chopin’s work. “Polite society” is a cruel, racist, sexist, classist, disingenuous master and Chopin was never afraid to politely, of course, point that out.
Long Haired and Wild: The Story of a Dictionary
"There, inside old books, we also find “‘beloved and tender and funny and familiar things,’" which “‘beckon across gulfs of death and change with a magic poignancy, the old things that our dead leaders and fore-fathers loved, viva adhuc et desiderio pulcriora.’”*
- David Skinner The Story of Ain’t (William Neilson quoting Gilbert Murray 28)
I attended a fascinating lecture the other night: “The Dictionary as Data: An Alumni Talk with Peter Sokolowski.” The talk was not only impressive, it was also a bit of serendipity for me as I had just finished a wonderful book, The Story of Ain’t written by David Skinner.
"All that a dictionary like Webster’s can do is record usage and when opinion differs show its own preference." William Allan Neilson quoted in The Story of Ain’t (89)
So said the editor in chief of Webster’s Second Edition. But, as it turns out, dictionaries are also a window into our psyches. Regardless of whether one looks at how dictionaries are used, or how they are made, the window is indisputably wide open.
"It is ironic," Gove said, "that the very title of the book we are considering contains a series of words which almost defy definition. It starts with the word Webster, about which there seems to be considerable doubt. The exact meaning of the word New is anyone’s guess. The word International has never been clearly defined. We are not even sure of the precise definition of the word dictionary. And the word English is open to considerable discussion. The word language has had a multitude of interpretations, and, finally, it is almost impossible to define precisely the word Unabridged" (171-72).
Let the fun begin! Both Sokolowski’s lecture and Skinner’s book concern Merriam-Webster dictionaries. The Story of Ain’t is about the making of Webster’s Third edition in the early 1960’s. The overblown and manufactured-by-journalistic-laziness controversy over the eponymous word wonderfully describes the cultural history of the era, and with fascinating symmetry, reinforces the crux of the theme of Sokolowski’s lecture: dictionaries chronicle the culture. The words that we define and codify reveal who we are at any given moment. Even the manner in which we go about defining and codifying, as Skinner shows, communicates a zeitgeist.
Webster’s Third […] “is not a dictionary as Samuel Johnson or Noah Webster conceived of one; it is a catalog. It is a kind of Kinsey Report in linguistics.” (Right Reverend Richard S. Emrich quoted 261)
Skinner articulates the dark humor of the hysteria over Webster’s Third wonderfully. There were more than a few moments that I laughed out loud, alarming my son. I had to spend some time reassuring him of my sanity as my giggles over a book about a dictionary tended to cast doubt in his mind. Ah, well he already sees me as something of lost cause…
"From its tendentious title- the work being neither Webster’s nor international, and only now and then a dictionary- to its silly systems and petty pedantries, the book is a faithful record of our emotional weaknesses and intellectual disarray" (Jacques Barzun quoted 293).
Skinner fully appreciates the high level of sophistication insults and condensations can reach in the ‘educated class’, and entertains the reader with one example after another. The comprehensive manner in which he uses the process and people involved with the making of the Third Edition to illustrate the culture of the time is skillfully executed and makes for a very fun read.
Peter Sokolowski, word maven and editor of Merriam-Webster turned the focus outward in his talk, examining the data that is currently being culled from online users of dictionaries. The trends are stark and fascinating: reflecting enduring conundrums (the etymology of “conundrum” is really fun, by the way) such as “effect” and “affect;” or a sudden interest in an obscure word mentioned by a newscaster or sports reporter. But there are also pairs of words that move up or down the ‘most looked up’ graph in concert with surprising constancy, or categories of words that occur in reliable order after cataclysmic events. The potential to glean sociological information from, of all things, dictionary data bases is astonishing, if slightly dismaying.
The interplay between our spoken language and the words that are then committed to writing is complex, illuminating, and meaningful. Dictionaries are used for all sorts of reasons: informational, instructional, etymological, philosophical (love, Sokolowski told us, for instance, is word that is looked up with curious relentlessness, considering its ubiquity). The potential insight provided by a digital platform’s newfound ability to uncover our relationship to words and what our language usage says about us is exciting, however, I must admit, I am somewhat nonplussed over my own inadvertent exposure.
*title from pg 193: Twaddle knew the letter writer,[…] and confirmed that he was a sane person whose views should be respectively heard. “There is nothing long-haired or wild about [him],” he said.
**Best Latin phrase ever - viva adhuc et desiderio pulcriora - living still and more beautiful because of our desire.
***Photo: My Inheritance: My father’s spelling disability and his Vest Pocket Webster Dictionary
I ask you, my human mind…
The human intellect is full of its own emptiness, better at looking than at seeing. - Saint Augustine, Confessions (285)
It was necessary for me to weave several books in and out of Augustine’s Confessions. As long as we are in a confessional state of mind, I will say that I had to keep my foot, so to speak, in the door of my mind to make sure it stayed open, and the effort was fatiguing. I may have read ten or fifteen other books while reading this one.
Who, after all, made me? (139)
That is not to say that the words, ideas, struggles and sublime beauty of language are not all present in the telling.
I was loosened from error, but not fastened to truth (109).
Nor is it to say that I did not, rather generously, ignore the oft repeated insulting words directed at my inferior sex.
Do we remember happiness, then, as we remember mathematical truths? […] No, I ask simply if happiness is a thing remembered - for how could we love it if we could not recognize it? (230)
When Augustine exhausts his intellect considering, memory, time and the cosmos - it is a wonder to behold. His algorithmic approach is astonishing, and his language, the pure beauty of his language, is a marvel.
How could times pass before they were there for the passing? (266)
But I can not help returning again and again, as Augustine himself did, to the epic battle he created between the body and the spirit. Whywhywhy?
He gives up sex, he cannot give up food and drink without sacrificing his life, but he is determined not to enjoy it. And no smell, however sweet will tempt him (there is something of the Mr. Darcy in Augustine: “she is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me”). In the end he closes all of his senses, even (although he is a bit of a cheater here) to the one thing that really tricks him up: music.
A delicious physical sound should not melt our reason (241).
Ah, but it does. His and mine. As a friend of mine said to me recently, “Music is one of things we humans get right.” And I suppose this brings me to the heart of my confusion. Who, after all, made us? Why these bodies that touch, these smells, tastes, feelings, sounds? Why this moon, this sun, our stars, the mountains, the ocean? Why make something if only to demand a complete renunciation? Why are men so hell bent on religions of deprivation?
Grant this thing I love, since my loving it was your grant (273)
I probably did help matters by listening to Mozart’s Requiem while reading the bulk of this book. But, I am preparing to sing it with my Glee Club and I have no hope or wish to extinguish the awe I feel when singing or listening to such profoundly moving music.
*title from page 268. Penguin edition translated by Garry Wills
Simple And Elegant Do Not Mean Easy
Gone are the two theories, gone their troubles and delicious reflections in one another, their furtive caresses, their inexplicable quarrels; alas, we have but one theory, whose majestic beauty can no longer excite us. Nothing is more fertile than these illicit liaisons…
André Weil quoted in Edward Frenkel’s Love and Math (103)
(Simple and elegant Swedish bread twists with almonds and cardamom: an essential component of higher math comprehension)
Math is passion. And like passion, it has its dark side. I have written before about the identity crisis that maths seem to provoke ( here and here), I admit I may have some slight obsession with the subject. In my own life I have, like others, found deep peace and contentment in the objective exactitude of math, but, also like others, when math seems to veer off the course of what we have understood as the applied rules, it is deeply unsettling.
In math, the problem is always well defined, and there is no ambiguity about what solving it means, you either solve it or you don’t (56).
After reading Edward Frenkel’s very fine book Love and Math, I feel I may have come to glimpse the nature of my fascination with math theory. I don’t believe it is our fault that our world-views are thrown by concepts such as imaginary numbers. The trick is, I think, one must push through the black hole of comprehension that engulfs us, otherwise it is very easy to lose our psychological footing. I believe it all comes down to subjective versus objective truths.
Mathematics is separate from both the physical world and the mental world (234)
Let me first say that I do not in any way want to present myself as somebody who read Love and Math with anything close to full comprehension of the complex and creative math that Frenkel heroically tried to bring within my intellectual reach. But that is not the point. It’s not why I seemed unable to put the book down, nor is it, I think, why he wrote it.
Indeed, the square of any real number must be positive or 0, so it cannot be equal to -1. So unlike √2 and -√2, the numbers √-1 and -√-1 are not real numbers. But so what? (101).
BUT SO WHAT????!!! SO WHAT!? That is the very heart and soul of the identity crisis of myself and many others!? Not so what!? Math is objective. What is the meaning of truth? Where are we then? Who am I? What is real? Why do I matter, oh god, what is the meaning of life? But wait….hang on…a light, a sliver of understanding…while Frankel described how it was in fact true that 2+2=1, I had a Eureka! moment. Yes. I see it! It is true 2+2 does equal 1. The truth is not altered. The truth is objective, it is only the means by which I got there, the translation I used, that altered. The solution is “created” but that creation has nothing to do with the solution other than its ability to allow us to perceive what is already there: the truth. That’s objectivity on an entirely different order. Wow. What a moment. It’s true, it’s like falling in love.
The deeper I delved into math, the more my fascination grew, the more I wanted to know. This is what happens when you fall in love (28).
I believe that our subjectivity is absolute. Inescapable. The only measure by which to ground ourselves in our subjectivity, however, is the purely objective language of math. It’s pure objectivity profoundly orients us. It is the discrete objectivity of math that connects. What a marvelous completeness the totality of subjective and objective truths gives us.
In truth, the process of creating new mathematics is a passionate pursuit, a deeply personal experience, just like creating art and music. It requires love and dedication, a struggle with the unknown and with oneself, which elicits strong emotions (233).
Frenkel’s book is wonderful on multiple fronts, his personal history growing up towards the end of Communist Russia, describing his struggles to overcome the systemic anti-semitism that pervaded the culture, is riveting. His charming delight connecting math to all aspects of life culminating in his 2010 film, Rites of Love and Math, is inspiring and beautiful. He draws on every aspect of life to help bring understanding to the complex math he is explaining, for example he refers to his mother’s borscht recipe to explain particle content of quantum field theory. This , however, brings me to a very serious breakdown in my comprehension, to which I must bring Frenkel to task:
For example, let’s look at this recipe of the Russian soup borscht, a perennial favorite in my home country. My mom makes the best one (of course!). […] Obviously, I have to keep my mom’s recipe secret. But here’s a recipe I found online (196).
My dear Mr. Frenkel, I am afraid that that is not at all “obvious” to me. Please explain, or send recipe.
*title from pg 201
In the Wonderland of Mind
You cannot touch the clouds, you know; but you feel the rain and know how glad the flowers and the thirsty earth are to have it after a hot day. You cannot touch love either; but you feel the sweetness that it pours into everything.
Annie Sullivan quoted in Helen Keller’s The Story of My Life (16)
Two unrelated things occurred this week that led me to read Helen Keller’s early autobiography. The first was that I happened to come across the book on my children’s book shelf as I was enlisted to find something for my eleven year old to read (he chose Robinson Crusoe). The second is that I attended a lecture in which the topic of Wittgenstein’s private language argument was discussed.
To know the thoughts and deeds that have marked man’s progress is to feel the great heart-throbs of humanity through the centuries; and if one does not feel in these pulsations a heavenward striving, one must indeed be deaf to the harmonies of life (55)
The question asked in the lecture was: is language essentially social? As language is an agreed upon set of sounds and symbols, what is its function when agreement (with another) is taken out by virtue of isolation? Can we really imagine it? I wondered if Miss Keller might have some insight into the question.
Each individual has a subconscious memory of the green earth and murmuring waters, and blindness and deafness cannot rob him of this sixth sense - a soul sense which sees, hears, feels, all in one (65).
In the case of Keller, she, in fact, did have sight and sound, as well as some language acquisition for the first 19 months of her life, so she is more of a, (as the lecturer coincidently stated) ”Robinson Crusoe type” whose isolation comes only after language has (more or less) made inroads into the mind.
Many scholars forget, it seems to me, that our enjoyment of the great works of literature depends more upon the depth of our sympathy than our understanding. The trouble is that very few of their laborious explanations stick in the memory. The mind drops them as a branch drops its overripe fruit (53).
Keller describes stirringly and with aching beauty the effect her reacquaintance with language, bursting with shared meaning and human contact, had upon her. Her thoughts regarding literature, learning, and life are lovely and true. This early autobiography is wonderful to read, not least of all for the glimpse into Keller’s towering intellectual mind at its inception.
We should take our education as we would take a walk in the country, leisurely, our minds hospitably open to impressions of every sort (55).
As I wrote in a response to the lecture, according to David Crystal’s book How Language Works, it is the “duality of structure” (Crystal 11) that differentiates language from communication. He describes the two different levels of language: the first: sounds and symbols which are the structural architecture and have no intrinsic meaning, (one doesn’t ask what “s” means, after all) and the second: combining, recombining and inventing ever new ways to use these sounds and symbols to communicate (Crystal 9). This makes it different to as well as a more narrow definition of communication, (which could be animal communication or body language -a smile or gesture of limited variability - even if there are hundreds of gestures, they can hardly be compared to the thousands of words, and thousands more word combinations as well as the rate of new word development). It would seem to me, a duality would be unnecessary for an isolated individual. But it also seems important, to me, to consider what we mean when we say, “isolated.” Anyone who already has language acquisition pre-isolation would naturally use it. Anyone who was profoundly isolated from birth would most likely not survive (or at the very least be severely compromised). Humans don’t thrive without others. How does “private language” fall in between those two points?
I find the more I think about it, the more I see language as a secondary issue of our humanness. Humans are inescapably social, language is a function of our essential sociability. Might not language then be by default essentially social because we are de facto social? Whatever its qualities, it seems an easy thing to agree with Keller when she writes:
There is nothing more beautiful, I think, than the evanescent fleeting images and sentiments presented by a language one is just becoming familiar with - ideas that flit across the mental sky, shaped and tinted by capricious fancy (42).
Indeed, one hopes we never lose our capricious fancy.
*title from page 51: In the wonderland of Mind I should be as free as another.
** all quotes from The Story of My Life by Helen Keller unless otherwise noted
In League With the World
You’ve got to allow for style, though. Nothing arrives on paper as it started, and so much arrives that never started at all. To write is always to rave a little.
-Elizabeth Bowen, The Death of the Heart (8)
Divided into three parts: The World, The Flesh and The Devil, Death of the Heart is remarkable book . A society drama in the vein of Edith Wharton, the story centers itself cleverly on the journal of the young and innocent Portia.
"But Matchett, she meant to do good."
"No, she meant to do right." (96)
Having just lost her father, quickly followed by her mother, the sixteen year old, Portia, goes to London to live with her half-brother, Thomas and his wife, Anna (also, the brother’s life long housekeeper, Matchett). Thomas and Portia’s father had made the unforgivable social faux pas of falling deeply in love with a woman other than his wife. When the other woman became pregnant, Thomas’s mother stoically and sacrificially insists that he marry the soon-to-be mother of Portia, thereby more or less exiling the indecorous (if happy) family to wander Europe until their ends.
"Sacrificers," said Matchett "are not the ones to pity. The ones to pity are those that they sacrifice. Oh, the sacrificers, they get it both ways. A person knows themselves what they’re able to do without." (92)
Anna and Thomas are unhappily married to each other in that smooth cold manner that society generally facilitates so neatly. Anna suffered a serious heartbreak earlier in her life, which is never fully explained, but which warps and poisons her feelings towards Portia. Her heart, and its death, cast Portia’s innocence into a guileless search trying to make sense of the people around her.
In this [Daphne] was unlike Anna, who at a moment of tension let out oaths and obscenities with a helpless delicate air. Where Anna, for instance, would call a person a bitch, Daphne would call the person an old cat. Daphne’s person was sexy, her conversation irreproachably chaste. (188)
So delicious! I love the observations and keen insight Bowen displays - which is cleverly self-referenced in all the talk about keeping a journal. The act of Portia writing down her innocent, and therefore, perspicuous observations is taken as a near act of war. This novel was published in 1938, but the attention to female dispositions and attitudes is notable. Bowen’s descriptions of the various types of women that populate this novel are wonderful, down to the details of how they approach food, one “making a plunge for the marmalade,” (185) or some other fantastically illustrative sketch.
"If you were half as heartless as you make out, you would be an appallingly boring woman." (318)
When the novel reaches its crisis it is Anna who while answering how she would feel if she were Portia, calls out the crux of the book. The cruel, crushing, corruption of one’s heart by societal mores….and for what?
"Boredom, oh such boredom, with a sort of secret society about nothing, keeping on making little signs to each other. Utter lack of desire to know what it is about. Wish that someone would blow a whistle and make the whole thing stop. Wish to have my own innings. Contempt for married people, keeping on playing up. Contempt for unmarried people, looking cautiously and touchy. Frantic, frantic desire to be handled with feeling…"
To be handled with feeling…because the alternative, as the character of Anna proves, is certain death to the thing we most dearly cherish: our hearts.
*title from page 385: "Happy that few of us are aware of the world until we are already in league with it."
A Separate Word
Hector: May I make a suggestion? Why can they not all just tell the truth?
Irwin: It’s worth trying, provided, of course, you can make it seem like you’re telling the truth.
-Alan Bennett, The History Boys (83)
It seems an obvious point to say that plays are meant to be seen, not read, but we don’t always have the luxury. A woman I met recently suggested that I might like the play, (but not the film) The History Boys. It took me most of the first act to get my eyes to work with my brain so that I could put the scene together in my head. I kept forgetting to READ who was speaking.
Timms: I don’t see how we can understand it. Most of the stuff poetry’s about hasn’t happened to us yet.
Hector: But it will Timms. It will. And then you will have the antidote ready! Grief. Happiness. Even when you’re dying.
We’re making your deathbeds here, boys (30).
I recently read an excerpt of the book Space Between Words, by Paul Saenger and I believe it relates to my problem:
Research indicates that English-speaking subjects also have discrete systems within the brain for the aural understanding and the silent visual understanding of language (3).
The Latin word “to read,” I learned at a lecture in the fall, actually has two root meanings: to read, yes, obviously, but also “to choose.” Ancient languages did not separate words, so one had “to choose” one’s words. According to Saenger, it was Irish and Anglo-Saxon monks who had shaky comprehension of Latin that began to add spaces. This addition is what gave our brains the ability to read silently: without mouthing or voicing the words. Silent reading makes it possible to read at theretofore unknown speed. A child learning to read, (or me trying to read Italian or French) must mouth or say the words, in fact children’s initial writing usually does not have spaces as that is not how they hear it. But once we make the jump (elegantly moving over the spaces) - the literary world is our oyster. With silent reading, we no longer even read strictly right to left, or all the words contained within a sentence, for that matter.
Word separation, by altering the neurophysiological process of reading, simplified the act of reading, enabling both the Medieval and modern reader to receive silently and simultaneously the text and encoded information that facilitates both comprehension and oral performance (13).
I’m deeply indebted to the Irish monk’s sub par linguistic skill. That being said, I had to get a little remedial in order to “read” something that should really be seen and heard. I was forced to slow down and hear it.
Dakin: Lecher though one is, or aspires to be, it occurs to me that the lot of women cannot be easy, who must suffer such inexpert male fumblings virtually on a daily basis.
Are we scarred for life, do you think?
Sripps: We must hope so.
Perhaps it will turn me into Proust (77).
Once my brain cooperated, the life of the play came to be. The stupidity of hypocrisy and academic hollowness, sad fumblings, defensive cynicism, and disappointed ambitions, live right alongside satisfaction in the small moments of human affection, understanding and connection. The History Boys is poignant, clever, and cautionary.
The words matter. The mental prowess displayed in The History Boys is fun, acerbic, and invigorating, but as Bennett elucidates so smartly, intellect for intellect’s sake is a pyrrhic victory. The war of meaning is won in the spaces and silences.
It ought to renew…the young mind; warm, eager, trusting; instead comes…a kind of coarsening. You start to clown. Plus a fatigue that passes for philosophy but is nearer to indifference (95).
Divisible Indivisibility of Color (or love)
The number of colors is infinite, yet every two opposite colors contain elements, the full possibility, of all the others. - Arthur Schopenhauer, On Vision and Colors
I have to admit, I may have skimmed a few paragraphs of Schopenhauer’s On Vision and Color - it was too painful. After keeping me enthralled with his passionate explanation of his theory of the subjectivity of color, he spent a few pages lambasting and taunting all the idiots of the world who disagreed with him. Of Scherffer, for example, he writes:
He reaches for all kinds of wretched and absurd hypotheses, wriggles pathetically, and in the end lets the issue rest (84).
Ouch. They would be harsh words had Schopenhauer been correct. But the fact that he is mostly wrong makes it quite uncomfortable to read. I say “mostly” because there is an interesting truth to his ideas when we consider Copernicus’s words (which Schopenhauer quotes) “compare, when allowed, small things with great.”
This explains their striking, every other color combination surpassing harmony, the power with which they call for each other and bring each other about, and the outstanding beauty that we confer on each of them by itself and even more so on both together (66).
To what is he referring? None other than the par excellent purity of red and green. “They call for each other,” I love that. He uses words like, “marriage,” “intimate union,” “affinities,” and “attractions.” He mathematically computes the amount of…love between colors and speaks to the impossibility of separation:
Therefore, chromatically we may not speak at all of individual colors, but only of color pairs: each pair represents the totality of the activity of the retina divided by two halves (70).
It’s a love story. Clearly.
Schopenhauer’s theory (which in the book I read is followed by Philip Otto Runge’s Color Sphere) rests on his idea that color is wholly subjective- an activity of the retina in which the the retina divides and then intellectually perceives colors rather than the objective color wave theory. So he got it wrong. But the beauty of his prose, the philosophy and artistry of his thinking was not lost on all. According to the introduction by Georg Stahl, Gerrit Rietveld (of the De Stijl group) was particularly influenced by Schopenhauer’s theory. Klee was equally enamored with Runge’s Color Sphere and used it in his teaching at the Bauhaus. Although Runge’s spheres are beautiful he pulls back from the romance of Schopanhauer’s prose a bit:
All five elements to each other - through their differences and affinities - form a perfect sphere, the surface of which contains all the elements and those mixtures that produced through a friendly mutual affinity of the qualities for each other (131). - Runge, Color Sphere
From lovers to friends, oh well.
Everyone must therefore carry within them a norm, an ideal, an Epicurean anticipation, about yellow and every color, independent of experience, with which they compare each actual color (69).
"An Epicurean anticipation" is a fabulous use of language. And the discussion of ideals in music and colors that Schopenhauer goes into relates so nicely to Semir Zeki’s book (which is of course the reason I read Goethe’s Theory of Color and On Vision and Color in the first place). Politely disregarding Schopenhauer’s hubris and considering the time in which he lived, where an invention such as the Daguerreotype might encourage him to draw false conclusions:
[reproducing] in its purely objective way, everything visible about bodies, but not color (97). (emphasis mine)
one can, at the very least, appreciate the philosophy of subjectivity that, I think, has some merit. After all, just yesterday I forwarded, to a pink-loathing friend of mine, an article which showed that pink does not actually exist as a color. It is merely our minds (groping for closure) filling in the gap left by the color waves that the human eye can not perceive. It seems to me one must be taken with the other, after all.
There can be no object without subject and no subject without object, since perceptions are defined by both (17).