Ripeness is all

I’ve been reading Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native for a walk I’m leading. The strange thing about Hardy is that you seem to feel the need to offer an excuse as to why you’re reading him, or maybe that’s just me. But anyway –

Clym Yeobright (the ‘Native’) has recently returned to Egdon Heath, where he was born, and has just told some of the local inhabitants, denizens of the heath as he was, that he plans to remain close to the heath and open a school. Whilst they say nothing, they are clearly taken aback; Why would someone who had escaped the heath and become a diamond-seller in Paris choose to return to this poor, backwater of a place – a place that everyone else dreams of leaving?

Thorncombe-3-web

The answer is that Clym has become an idealist.

Yeobright loved his kind. He had a conviction that the want of most men was knowledge of a sort which brings wisdom rather than affluence.

However, because of his studious time in Paris, he was far in advance of his erstwhile fellow inhabitants of the heath – ‘the rural world was not ripe for him.’

‘A man should be only partially before his time: to be completely in the vanguard in aspirations is fatal to fame [ … ] Successful propagandists have succeeded because the doctrine they bring into form is that which their listeners have for some time felt without being able to shape.’

Doesn’t this just perfectly describe Steve Jobs, by the way, and in particular the iPad? Just enough ahead of the game, and able to fulfil aspirations that people were only dimly aware that they had.

But, unlike Jobs – at least in his speeches – Hardy is scornful of idealism:

‘Was Yeobright’s mind well-proportioned? No. A well-proportioned mind is one which shows no particular bias … It would never would have allowed Yeobright to do such a ridiculous thing as throw up his business [he was a diamond seller in Paris] to benefit his fellow-creatures.’

Yeobright dares to dream – and is punished for it.

By this time in his life Hardy had endured scorn and rejection himself – in people’s low expectations of the kind of job he might aspire to, and in the way his (now) in-laws had looked down upon him as the suitor of their daughter. Despite winning the woman and succeeding in the career he had set his hopes on – to be a writer – he allowed these early slights to colour his whole outlook.

Incidentally, not wholly unlike Picasso who, as John Richardson recounts in his biography of the artist, never forgave the lack of interest from dealers during his early years in Paris. But I digress.

Hardy damns Clym’s idealism, and throughout his novels those who aspire to escape the position into which they are born tend to pay a heavy price. Just think of Jude. And Clym.

I wonder if the reason Hardy feels so unfashionable right now is that in contradiction to today’s (welcome) mantra of ‘Yes you can!,’ Hardy seems intent on saying ‘No, you can’t’ and insisting on the insignificance of the individual. Despite the fact that he made it all the way to the top.

He is buried in Westminster Abbey – except for his heart. That’s back home in Dorset, in Stinsford churchyard, close to his birthplace. And the heath.

Jack Kerouac’s essentials for prose

Jack Kerouac (right) and Neal Cassady (photo by Carolyn Cassady)

Jack Kerouac (right) and Neal Cassady (photo by Carolyn Cassady)

I just picked up Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down The Bones and was struck by the four essentials that she quotes from Jack Kerouac’s ‘Essentials for Prose,’:

1. Accept loss forever

2. Be submissive to everything, open, listening

3. No fear or shame in the dignity of your experience, language, and knowledge

4. Be in love with your life

And of these the first and fourth run deepest, not just for writing but for life: Accept loss forever. Hitting the hard, flinty truth of what’s necessary to keep focused on today and tomorrow, and leaving yesterday behind. And perhaps a necessary condition for number 4.

There are others, including ‘Struggle to sketch the flow that already exists intact in the mind’ and ‘Keep track of every day, the date emblazoned in yr morning.’ But I also like:

Like Proust, be an old teahead of time.

And coincidentally… in my inbox the latest from Jamie Jauncey’s excellent blog at A Few Kind Words – I love that title. This week he is talking about writing, mentioning in passing Stephen King whose ‘On Writing’ I have also just been reading, and sets out the ‘Flowers Paradigm’ of Betty Sue Flowers (who is emeritus professor of English at the University of Texas at Austin, amongst much else):

Every writer brings four people to the writing table: a madman, an architect, a carpenter and a judge. The madman is the unfettered creative genius, the source of raw energy and ideas. The architect is the visionary and planner who gives shape to the building born of the madman’s ideas. The carpenter hammers away bringing form to the architect’s plans. The judge waits till everyone else has finished, then goes round with a magnifying glass shaking his or her head. The trick for the writer, of course, is to understand that he or she needs them all at different stages of the process.

Written largely in a single burst of creative energy in April 1951, few books match On The Road for sheer exhilaration – the exhilaration of being alive, of being on the journey. I remember the first time I read it and how I was completely enthralled, intoxicated even, devouring page after page late into the night until I reached the end. Then starting all over again.

On The Road first editionThe extraordinary energy of the prose, poured out onto a single 120-foot roll of tracing paper sheets that he cut to size and taped together, retains its power, even if some of the attitudes have dated. The book’s essential wild mix of of hedonism and asceticism is still thrilling: Accept loss forever. Be submissive to everything, open, listening. Be in love with your life.

Two versions of the book are now available, before and after the interventions of the judge: The (standard) text as first published by Viking in 1957, which is the first draft revised and edited by Kerouac and incorporating changes demanded by the publisher, and the first draft itself (the madman unfettered), published as On the Road: The Original Scroll.

On The Road original scroll
Original scroll of ‘On The Road’Jack Kerouac – Beliefs and Techniques for Modern Prose

Here’s the full list of Kerouac’s essentials. As you can see, not necessarily just for prose, but also for life. Or the other way round.

1. Scribbled secret notebooks, and wild typewritten pages, for yr own joy

2. Submissive to everything, open, listening

3. Try never get drunk outside yr own house

4. Be in love with yr life

5. Something that you feel will find its own form

6. Be crazy dumbsaint of the mind

7. Blow as deep as you want to blow

8. Write what you want bottomless from bottom of the mind

9. The unspeakable visions of the individual

10. No time for poetry but exactly what is

11. Visionary tics shivering in the chest

12. In tranced fixation dreaming upon object before you

13. Remove literary, grammatical and syntactical inhibition

14. Like Proust be an old teahead of time

15. Telling the true story of the world in interior monolog

16. The jewel center of interest is the eye within the eye

17. Write in recollection and amazement for yourself

18. Work from pithy middle eye out, swimming in language sea

19. Accept loss forever

20. Believe in the holy contour of life

21. Struggle to sketch the flow that already exists intact in mind

22. Dont think of words when you stop but to see picture better

23. Keep track of every day the date emblazoned in yr morning

24. No fear or shame in the dignity of yr experience, language & knowledge

25. Write for the world to read and see yr exact pictures of it

26. Bookmovie is the movie in words, the visual American form

27. In praise of Character in the Bleak inhuman Loneliness

28. Composing wild, undisciplined, pure, coming in from under, crazier the better

29. You’re a Genius all the time

30. Writer-Director of Earthly movies Sponsored & Angeled in Heaven

Lunch and art: The fictional and real

Renoir Boating Party Luncheon

I’m reading Edmund de Waal’s brilliant memoir ‘The Hare With Amber Eyes’. Very late, I know. But, better late than never. I’ve had the book for quite a while, a charity shop purchase, but every time I picked it up the picture of the netsuke on the cover put me off. I’m still not sure I actually like the netsuke but, as so often, a good book finds you when you are ready for it.

No doubt any day now – perhaps already – editions will include access to reproductions of the objects being described. But even reading the old style printed paperback all you need to do is google and… there is Renoir’s Le Déjeuner des Canotiers, (The Luncheon of the Boating Party), in front of you, as you read the story within the story:

A red-and-white striped awning protects the party from the glare of the sun. It is after lunch in Renoir’s new world of painter, patrons and actresses, and everyone is a friend. Models smoke, drink and talk amongst the detritus of the empty bottles and the meal left on the table …

The actress Ellen Andrée, in a hat with a flower pinned to it, raises her glass to her lips. Baron Raoul Barbier, a former mayor of colonial Saigon, his brown bowler hat pushed back, talks to the young daughter of the proprietor.

Her brother, straw-hatted like a professional oarsman, stands in the foreground surveying the lunch. Caillebotte, relaxed and fit in a white singlet and boater, sits astride his chair looking at the young seamstress Aline Chaigot, Renoir’s lover and future wife.

The artist Paul Llhote sits with a Proprietorial arm around the actress Jeanne Samary. It is a matrix of smiling conversation and flirtation. And Charles is there. He is the man at the very back, in the top hat and black suit, turning slightly away, seen glancingly. You can just see his red-brown beard. He is talking with a pleasantly open-faced, poorly shaved Laforgue, dressed as a proper poet in a working man’s cap and what could even be a corduroy jacket.

The ‘Charles’ is Charles Ephrussi, cousin of the author’s great-grandfather, art collector and the first owner of the netsuke collection de Waal has inherited. Charles Ephrussi was also a friend of Proust, and part model for the aesthete and dandy Charles Swann.

De Waal draws our attention to this intriguing extract in which Proust’s fictional artist, Elstir, reflects upon the real painting (above), and the real Charles:

A gentleman … wearing a top hat at a boating party where he is clearly out of place, which proved that for Elstir he was not only a regular sitter, but a friend, perhaps a patron.

Carpe Diem – Proust on fishing

water-birch

There’s no irony (is there?) that a novel the length of ‘In Search of Lost Time’ is in fact about seizing the moment – or rather, trying to understand / appreciate / experience the full depth of every moment.

In this it is closer to the more accurate rendition of the phrase ‘carpe diem’ as ‘enjoy the day, pluck the day when it is ripe.’ (thank you, phrases.org.uk).

Here he is on catching the fleeting glance of a stranger through the window of a carriage travelling in the opposite direction:

… as soon as her individuality, a soul still vague, a will unknown to me, presented a tiny picture of itself, enormously reduced but complete, in the depths of her indifferent eyes, at once, by a mysterious response of the pollen ready in me for the pistils that should receive it, I felt surging through me the embryo, equally vague, equally minute, of the desire not to let this girl pass without forcing her mind to become aware of my person, without preventing her desires from wandering to someone else, without insinuating myself into her dreams and taking possession of her heart. Meanwhile our carriage had moved on; the pretty girl was already behind us; and as she had—of me—none of those notions which constitute a person in one’s mind, her eyes, which had barely seen me, had forgotten me already.

For Proust, every day is ripe for the picking; it is only habit and familiarity (and laziness) that dulls our vivid experience of every moment.

In the first place, the impossibility of stopping when we meet a woman, the risk of not meeting her again another day, give her at once the same charm as a place derives from the illness or poverty that prevents us from visiting it, or the lustreless days which remain to us to live from the battle in which we shall doubtless fall. So that, if there were no such thing as habit, life must appear delightful to those of us who are continually under the threat of death—that is to say, to all mankind.

And to fully appreciate every moment, it’s no good standing back, on the sidelines:

in the state of mind in which we “observe” we are a long way below the level to which we rise when we create.

To truly catch the fleeting moment we need to engage our imagination:

We need, between us and the fish which, if we saw it for the first time cooked and served on a table, would not appear worth the endless shifts and wiles required to catch it, the intervention, during our afternoons with the rod, of the rippling eddy to whose surface come flashing, without our quite knowing what we intend to do with them, the bright gleam of flesh, the hint of a form, in the fluidity of a transparent and mobile azure.

Proust on fishing! Who knew?! It certainly slipped by me first time around. But caught this time. All of which is to say, in a roundabout way, that after a break I’m just limbering up for Volume III: The Guermantes Way.

Beauty and daily life

Milan Kundera

Milan Kundera

Stop. Listen. Think. Look
The point of art is to remind us to be alive. To open our eyes. This is a great quote from The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera:

It is wrong to chide the novel for being satisfied by mysterious coincidences, but it is right to chide man for being blind to such coincidences in his daily life. For he thereby deprives his life of a dimension of beauty.

Thank you musicthoughts.com (a new site by Derek Sivers) for reminding me of this great quote from the book by Milan Kundera. The site is a growing compendium of quotes, mainly about music. Here’s another great quote on the site, from Proust:

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new landscapes, but in having new eyes.

Remembering the Holocaust

Stolperstein

When one works, one suffers and there is no time to think: our homes are less than a memory. But here [in Ka Be, the infirmary] the time is ours: from bunk to bunk, despite the prohibition, we exchange visits and we talk and we talk. The wooden hut, crammed with suffering humanity, is full of words, memories and of another pain. ‘Heimweh’, the Germans call this pain; it is a beautiful word, it means ‘longing for one’s home’.

Primo Levi, ‘If This Is A Man’ (from Chapter 4 ‘Ka-Be)

A ‘Stolperstein’ (‘stumbling block’; plural Stolpersteine) on Nollendorfstraße, Berlin, just down the road from No. 17, Fraulein Thurau’s boarding house, where Christopher Isherwood lived between 1929 and 1933 and wrote the stories that would be published as Goodbye to Berlin (and inspired the movie Cabaret).

The Stolpersteine are a memorialisation project by artist Gunter Demnig. These small, cobblestone-sized brass memorials to the victims of Nazism are set into the pavement in front of buildings where a victim once lived or worked, calling attention both to the individual victim and the scope of the Nazi war crimes.

So far more than 32,000 Stolpersteine have been installed in over 700 cities across Europe, including Austria, Hungary, the Netherlands, Belgium, in the Czech Republic, in Poland, in Italy (Rome) and Norway (Oslo).

Posted on Holocaust Memorial Day. Photo: Westrow, Berlin, 5 Sept 2012

Just Do It

Loved this from Matthew Kimberley’s Get A Grip:

action is the difference between ‘screw it, let’s do it’ and ‘fuck it, let’s have a kebab.’

Also loved this from Jeanette Winterson’s latest, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal:

Manchester spun riches beyond anybody’s wildest dreams, and wove despair and degradation into the human fabric

A great sentence on the mix and contrariness of Manchester, the world’s first industrial city and the city where she was born.

The fire from a little spark

‘Everyone knows that the fire from a little spark will increase and blaze ever higher as long as it finds wood to burn; yet without being quenched by water, but merely by finding no more fuel to feed on, it consumes itself, dies down, and is no longer a flame. Similarly, the more tyrants pillage, the more they crave, the more they ruin and destroy; the more one yields to them, and obeys them, by that much do they become mightier and more formidable, the readier to annihilate and destroy…’

Am reading the section on Etienne de La Boetie in Sarah Bakewell’s excellent book on Montaigne, ‘How To Live: A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer’ (which I’ve just heard has won the 2010 Duff Cooper award – congratulations to her) and was struck by the extraordinary prescience of his essay ‘ Discourse on Voluntary Servitude, or the Anti-Dictator (Discours de la servitude volontaire ou le Contr’un).

His essay, written over 450 years ago in 1552 or ‘53, seems to describe just what is happening in the Arab world today – the people awaking for an almost hypnotically induced slumber, of consent to be ruled by ‘the one person whose qualities they cannot admire because of his inhumanity and brutality toward them.’

In the essay La Boetie questions why people agree to be oppressed by government overlords and concludes that it is not just fear, for our consent is required. And that consent can be non-violently withdrawn:

… But if not one thing is yielded to them, if, without any violence they are simply not obeyed, they become naked and undone and as nothing, just as, when the root receives no nourishment, the branch withers and dies. I do not ask that you place hands upon the tyrant to topple him over, but simply that you support him no longer; then you will behold him, like a great Colossus whose pedestal has been pulled away, fall of his own weight and break into pieces. 

In this, he became one of the earliest advocates of civil disobedience and nonviolent resistance, and (can we hope?) explains why Gaddafi and similar rulers cannot, in the end, prevail.

Consider the justly famous battles of Miltiades,4 Leonidas,5 Themistocles,6 still fresh today in recorded history and in the minds of men as if they had occurred but yesterday, battles fought in Greece for the welfare of the Greeks and as an example to the world. What power do you think gave to such a mere handful of men not the strength but the courage to withstand the attack of a fleet so vast that even the seas were burdened, and to defeat the armies of so many nations, armies so immense that their officers alone outnumbered the entire Greek force? What was it but the fact that in those glorious days this struggle represented not so much a fight of Greeks against Persians as a victory of liberty over domination, of freedom over greed?

see full essay at http://www.constitution.org/la_boetie/serv_vol.htm

New Directions

The new year is an invitation to assess what’s working, and what’s not. But for every new direction you commit to, there’s the road not taken – and the thorny problem of being happy with the choice you make.

Robert Frost’s famous poem on this theme (‘The Road Not Taken‘) dramatises this moment of choice and, according to comments made by the author at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference in 1953, was inspired by

“a friend who had gone off to war, a person who, whichever road he went, would be sorry he didn’t go the other. He was hard on himself that way.”

The Road Not Taken‘ was first published in Frost’s collection Mountain Interval in 1916, almost perfectly midway between publication of ‘Swann’s Way’ (Du côté de chez Swann, 1913) and the first part of ‘The Guermantes Way ‘ (La côté de Guermantes’, 1920), of Proust’s ‘A La Recherche du Temps Perdu’:

For there were, in the environs of Combray, two “ways” which we used to take for our walks, and they were so diametrically opposed that we would actually leave the house by a different door according to the way we had chosen…

(Scott Moncrieff, Terence Kilmartin translation)

The great reading journey, in search of lost time, that I plan to take again in 2011.

Leap into the Void

 

Helen caught the Yves Klein exhibition at the Hirshhorn when she was in DC earlier in the week. I have always enjoyed his iconoclasm, of which a good example is this photograph, taken by Harry Shunk, of Klein leaping off a building, to the indifference of a passing bicyclist. Well, obviously not quite so straightforward:

In October 1960, the American photographer Harry Shunk made a series of pictures re-creating a jump from a second-floor window that the artist claimed to have executed earlier in the year; the figure and the surrounding scene were then collaged together and rephotographed to create its “documentary” appearance.

[Source: Yves Klein, Harry Shunk, Janos Kender: Leap into the Void (1992.5112) | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art

OK, so far so good. But how did they re-create the jump?

The site where the event took place, in Fontenay-des-Roses, was chosen because it was next-door to a judo club, many of the members of which were known to Klein.

Twelve of these judokas were persuaded to hold a tarpaulin beneath him and to catch his body as he leapt into space a number of times, to ensure that the camera caught him in the position that he wished to record. Once the picture had been taken, the judokas were removed in the darkroom and replaced with the neutral image of the street with solitary cyclist.

[Source: http://www.andrewgrahamdixon.com/archive/readArticle/188]

The original inspiration for the image was a jump Klein claimed to have made at his apartment in which he believed he had truly levitated. The plan had been for his friend, the critic Pierre Restany, to witness the event, but he was delayed and arrived too late:

“When I got there,” Restany later recalled, “Yves was in a kind of mystical ecstasy. He truly seemed to have accomplished some prodigious physical feat. He said to me, ‘You have just missed one of the most important events of your life’.

However, Restany also recalled:

He was limping slightly from a twisted ankle.

Oh.

To his annoyance, Klein failed to convince any of his friends regarding his original ‘leap’, and one or two later attempts he made in public only served to encourage further scepticism; leaping down a stairwell at the Rive Droite Gallery he succeeded only in damaging his shoulder.

But, I think, the power and élan of the image remains intact.

Sadly, less than two years after the photograph, on 6 June 1962, he died of a massive heart attack, aged just thirty-four.

The importance of peeling an orange

You may or may not dare to eat a peach, but this is why it’s important to peel an orange:

Many people believe that they can remain unaffected by the beliefs and attitudes of the age. But no one can. As we live in the age, so the age lives in us.

And one of the most insidious beliefs of the age, I think, is that fulfillment is effortless, even inevitable. But the opposite is true. Everything worthwhile has to be earned.

Recently I came across a tragically significant fact. Sales of oranges are plummeting, because no one can be bothered to peel them anymore. I can’t give you any prescriptions but … I can give you a spiritual exercise, something to purify your souls.

Buy an orange. Take it home. And peel it. Slowly. Deliberately. Voluptuously. Above all defiantly – in defiance of this age that demands everything to be easy.

An excerpt from Michael Foley, author of The Age of Absurdity, speaking at the Bristol Festival of Ideas, on the Philosophy Now podcast from Philosophy Press.

Do subscribe to the monthly podcast, presented by Julian Baggini, and celebrate the readiness of philosophers to engage once again with questions of how to live and renewed confidence in the power of philosophical insight to work a practical effect on our lives. And enjoy peeling that orange.

Take time

Hello darkness my old friend

Down here the first week of November has been suitably wild and stormy, with a sharp, bright, beautiful full moon occasionally visible, hanging low over the trees in the darkness, and casting its quiet, implacable glow against the scudding clouds blown across its face. A view like an old negative held up to the light, ethereal and mysterious.

What to do with all the extra darkness? Embrace the intensity.  That’s the message of two excellent articles in the ‘Guide to the Night’ supplement with the Guardian and Observer last weekend – Sarah Hall on night swimming and Jeanette Winterson on evenings by candlelight – ‘when all the lights are on, people tend to talk about what they are doing …  in candlelight or firelight, people start to talk about how they are feeling’ – and making love in the afternoon:

To begin as the afternoon light is fading, to wake up, warm and heavy, when it is completely dark, to kiss and stroke the shared invisible body, to leave the person you love half asleep while you go and open wine … then the moment of standing barefoot in the kitchen, just a candle and two glasses to take back to bed, and a feeling of content like no other.

and concluding

Food, fire, walks, dreams, cold, sleep, love, slowness, time, quiet, books, seasons – all these things, which are not really things, but moments of life – take on a different quality at night-time, where the moon reflects the light of the sun, and we have time to reflect what life is to us, knowing that it passes, and that every bit of it, in its change and its difference, is the here and now of what we have.

On night swimming Sarah Hall brilliantly describes the visceral shock and the intensity of physical sensation as you enter the water:

At first the sensation is electric, almost unbearable, yet bearable. Lung and nerve and blood mechanisms go into shock. Your body enters an elation of rage, because an extreme thing is happening. An andrenaline supernova follows, a burst of emergency energy. After a second or two your system recalculates, adjusts; there is a brief physiological acceptance.

And then you are swimming. There may only be a minute’s worth of swimming … but that minute is a rare, certain period in life. You are extraordinarily alive during it.

Inspiration enough to join the OSS swim at Parliament Hill lido on 5th Dec. It’s daytime, but it’s a start. See you there.

I had hoped to link to the full articles, but couldn’t find them on the net. You’ll have to make do with Sarah Montague’s interview with Will Self and Ralph Steadman on the Today programme. It becomes increasingly surreal and hilarious as Steadman gets involved.

 

Philosophy

A C Grayling is amusing and sharp, as a writer and philosopher. His ‘This much I know’ in the Observer last Sunday was witty and thought-provoking. Here are a couple of the best:

A human lifespan is less than a thousand months long. You need to make some time to think how to live it.

I recently retraced on foot a famous journey that William Hazlitt made from Shropshire to Somerset to visit Wordsworth and Coleridge. I spent two weeks slogging through nettle beds before I realised the bastard had taken the coach.

Life is all about relationships. By all means sit cross-legged on top of a mountain occasionally. But don’t do it for very long.

OK, three. Read more here.