Archive for October, 2018

Digressing with Sterne

My intentions were good, that’s for sure. All those times I have bought books with impressive titles, impressive blurbs on the back covers, and, I am sure, even more impressive contents, I had every intention of reading them. And this despite already having scores of unread books on my shelves, and my normally slow reading rate having become even slower of late.

Right now, I should be reading Nietzsche. He is, after all, one of the most important and most influential thinkers of the era that, in literary terms, possibly interests me most – the latter half of the nineteenth century. How could I hope to get a handle on the intellectual currents of the time without knowing Nietzsche?

A great many writers and thinkers one could become acquainted with at second hand, through a process of osmosis, as it were. Of course, if you want to study these writers and thinkers properly, you will have to read their works: there is no royal path to understanding. But one can, nonetheless, get a very rough idea with secondary material. But with Nietzsche, it becomes very difficult: he has been interpreted in so many different ways, and with so many of these interpretations deemed dangerous misinterpretations, that one really has no option but to dive in and see for oneself. Which, given my lack of a background in philosophy, is not easy. So I bought myself the Cambridge Companion to Nietzsche, and read the various excellent essays in there, as a way of easing myself in. What’s more, I think I even understood these essays. Well, some of them, at least. And I was just about to dive into Beyond Good and Evil – when I got distracted.

It was Laurence Sterne who distracted me. And that is curiously appropriate, as Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (as well as his lesser known Sentimental Journey) are masterpieces of distraction. Here was a writer who, try as hard as he could, just could not keep to the subject at hand. Tristram Shandy is a sort of paean to the Art of Digression: the entire novel is but a series of digressions – though digression exactly from what is not very easy to figure out. But Sterne is so engaging a narrator, so genial, so personable, so delightfully dotty, and so scrupulously polite despite all the bawdiness that will insist on intruding, that it doesn’t seem to matter. And, one soon realises – the digressions are the point.

I won’t try to describe Tristram Shandy here. I’ll keep that for a later blog post – to be written once I’ve finished reading this. This is not my first reading: it is, if I remember correctly, my third. But it is strange how one’s receptivities alter over time. Not that I didn’t enjoy my earlier readings – I most certainly did – but I don’t think I enjoyed them to quite the same extent I am enjoying it this time round. I think, more than anything else, it is Sterne’s personality I am enjoying. In talking about books, we often undervalue the companionship afforded by the author: and what better company could anyone ask for on the commuter train?

It makes quite a change from the last book I read. (Apart from those essays on Nietzsche, that is.) I recently finished reading The Adolescent by Dostoyevsky, which I had started as I was a great admirer of that writer, and, given this novel’s reputation as one of his lesser works, had not read before. And I remain a great admirer still, despite my experience of having now read this novel. But either his remarkable powers deserted him when writing this, or he was working at some level beyond my comprehension. I do not know. I am currently debating with myself whether or not I should write a blog post on this novel: what’s the point, given that I couldn’t make any sense of it? Just a short post to register my incomprehension, perhaps. But be that as it may, whether the problem was with the book itself or with my shortcomings as a reader, it wasn’t a satisfying reading experience.

I have also been reading – and blogging on – the major plays of Ibsen. Now Ibsen, unlike Nietzsche, is a writer I have been acquainted with for a long time, and he is very close to my heart, for reasons I haven’t yet worked out. So I thought that reading those plays, and writing about them – not pronouncing upon them, as such, but, rather, recording my own thoughts and impressions, such as they are – would help me come to a closer understanding of what it is about these plays that affect me so. I have been reading these plays this time round in chronological order, and am now approaching his last plays; and, frankly, I feel intimidated. The next play I would like to write about is Rosmersholm, and that is so very difficult and complex that I really don’t think I am qualified even to try to untangle its psychological and moral depths. And, for this very reason, I have been delaying writing something on it: I am finding it difficult to grasp and to pin down something that I can sense is in there, and which is, I can tell, immense. I’m sure I’ll get down to it eventually. And, although it is unlikely that Ibsen ever read Nietzsche, the essays on Nietzsche I have recently been reading did seem to me to shed some light on these Ibsen plays. It is not, after all, any great surprise that major creative writers and thinkers, writing at the same time, should have similar concerns.

But, for the moment, let’s leave Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche and Ibsen aside for a while – all mere complexities. I’ll return to them later when I am so minded. Not that there aren’t complexities in Tristram Shandy also, but whatever complexities there are in it are so camouflaged with Sterne’s warmth and ludic dexterity that I find myself reading with a broad grin on my face rather than a with a furrowed brow. And that, for the moment at least, is how I like it.

Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche and Ibsen can all wait. I am now digressing with the greatest digresser of them all, and thoroughly enjoying every minute of it.

“For love of unforgotten times”: “A Child’s Garden of Verses” by Robert Louis Stevenson

I think I must have been seven or eight, no more – a child who had been acquainted with the English language for not more than three years – when I first encountered Stevenson’s  A Child’s Garden of Verses. Our teacher at our primary school in Kirkcaldy used each week to write a poem in chalk on the blackboard, and we used to copy them into our jotters; and our homework would be to memorise that poem. And if modern sensibilities think of that as quaintly old-fashioned, or even as an imposition, then so much the worse for modern sensibilities. Memories are vague, of course, but from what I remember, I did enjoy those poems, and I cannot remember any complaints from any of the other children. And those poems have stuck in my mind ever since, for the general betterment, I think, of that mind. I look through the poems in this collection now, and there are so many I remember memorising at home and reciting in class … That one about the speeding train, for instance:

Faster than fairies, faster than witches,
Bridges and houses, hedges and ditches…

And I remember our teacher telling us how, when you read it out loud, it sounds like a train rattling along. I think that was possibly the first indication I had of poetry communicating through sound as much as through anything else. I remember my imagination being stirred on windy nights by the idea of a horseman galloping by:

Whenever the moon and stars are set,
Whenever the wind is high,
All night long in the dark and wet,
A man goes riding by.
Late in the night when the fires are out,
Why does he gallop and gallop about?

I was only going to give the first verse here, but now that I have done that, I can’t help giving the other verse too:

Whenever the trees are crying aloud,
And ships are tossed at sea,
By, on the highway, low and loud,
By at the gallop goes he.
By at the gallop he goes, and then,
By he comes back at the gallop again.

Yes, reading these poems at my age is tremendously nostalgic, but it seems to me that there was as at least as much nostalgia in Stevenson’s writing of these poems as there is in my reading. For, although I enjoyed these poems as a child, I am not sure that they strike me, reading them now, as poems written specifically for children. Rather, they are very much, and, I think, very consciously, poems about an adult looking back: nostalgia is not merely what these poems evoke – it is the central theme of this collection; and, inevitably, since nostalgia literally means “the ache for home”, there is, under the charm and the whimsicality, an ache, a sorrow.

The sorrow is partly for the lonely, sickly child Stevenson remembered himself to have been. There is the famous poem in which he, lying sick in bed, imagines in the patches of his bedquilt a new land on which his toy soldiers may manoeuvre; or the one where he remembers his imaginary friend; or the one where he remembers sitting on his own at the window every evening, waiting for Leerie the lamplighter stopping to light the streetlamp in front of his house; and how he wished to become a lamplighter himself once he grows up, and do the rounds each night with Leerie. Occasionally, Stevenson mentions playing with other children, but only occasionally: in most of the poems, he is on his own, imagining friends, imagining new, exotic worlds.

But these poems are not self-pitying: Stevenson grew up in a comfortable family, and he knew his background was privileged. The greater part of the sadness in these poems comes from that sense of loss we all feel when we look back on our childhoods, even though that sense of loss is for something that, for the most part, exists only in our imaginations. For our imaginations harden too, along with our arteries, and the new lands we used to conjure out of the patches in our counterpane are, in our adult years, well beyond our reach.

In the last poem in the collection, Stevenson drops the pretence that he is writing for children. This last poem is called “To Any Reader”, but actually, it is addressed to the adult reader. Here, he bids his adult reader picture “another child, far, far away”, playing in “another garden”.

But do not think you can at all,
By knocking on the window, call
That child to hear you…

And Stevenson knows the loss is not his alone. In one poignant verse, addressed to his mother, he writes:

You too, my mother, read my rhymes
For love of unforgotten times,
And you may chance to hear once more
The little feet along the floor.

This is a loss, and a sorrow, the expression of which we rarely encounter – the sorrow of losing a child not through anything so dramatic as death, but simply by the fact that the child grows up. I imagine we rarely hear of it because such a grief seems self-centred: if the parent and the grown-up child are on good terms, it seems like an unjust rebuke to the grown up child; and if not, it is, inevitably, more than tinged with bitterness. But it remains a potent grief nonetheless: the child that had delighted us so by the very fact of being a child may well have become the most splendid of adults, but some sadness inevitably remains that that delight is no more.

Another writer who captured this particular sense of loss is Bibhutibhushan Banerji, in the novel Aparajito (a follow-up to the better known Pather Panchali, and equally wondrous and moving). In this novel, Apu’s mother, Sarbojaya, dies on her own in her remote village, while the last remaining member of her family, Apu, now an adolescent, and unaware of the state of his mother’s health, is in far distant Kolkata. In Satyajit Ray’s famous film, Sarbojaya, as she approaches her end, imagines she hears her son’s voice, and she hobbles to the door and opens it; and outside, there is only emptiness: all she can see are fireflies glowing in the dark. As with so many images in this trilogy of films, that image of the glowing fireflies affects the viewer – well, this viewer at least – with an intensity that no amount of analysis can quite account for. But, marvellous though this sequence is, Bibhutibhushan, in his novel treats the scene differently. Here, Sarbojaya, at the point of death, hallucinates her son Apu has come to see her; but it is not Apu the young man as he is now: it is Apu as he had been as a ten year-old.

I remember when I first read that, I was so moved, I had to put the book down for a while to collect myself. For this is the Apu his mother had lost. Her daughter she had lost to the brute fact that all that lives must die; but her son she had lost to the equally brute fact that all that lives must change. Worldly wisdom tells us not to look back, and to keep up with the changes; but our worldly minds often cannot. And the grown-up Stevenson understands the sorrow felt by all those who share that “love of unforgotten times”.

There is nothing in these poems quite as heart-tugging as that scene in Aparajito, but neither did Stevenson intend there to be. Instead, there is charm, there is delight; and there is, it seems to me, a lingering sadness underpinning it all, a sadness that seems to me more than the consequence of my own nostalgia for those far-off days at North Primary School, Kirkcaldy.

I have never sat at my window to see Leerie the lamplighter pass by. Indeed, I have never even seen a lamplighter. But reading Stevenson’s evocation, it seems as if I have. Leerie the lamplighter has become part of my own nostalgia as well.

Some utter nonsense

The first book I remember reading was a book of Bengali nonsense rhymes, Abol Tabol (which means “gibberish”) by Sukumar Ray (Satyajit’s dad). When I was 5, I knew many of those poems by heart. Recently, in an idle hour, I wondered if I could translate one of them. This is the result. I am not very pleased with the ending (which seems to me rather anticlimactic in English) – but what the hell! – I’m not a professional translator, and this is the best I could do. Since I’ve now done it, and don’t know what to do with it, I thought I might as well stick it up here.

Our office head, a lovely chap,
Forever calm and gentle,
Who’d have thought he’d be the sort
To go completely mental?

There he dozed upon his chair
Contented as a child,
But then his nap broke with a snap –
He was raving! He was wild!

He gave a shout and rolled about,
His arms and legs went flying,
“Help, help!” he cried, “Come to my side,
“Come hold me up! I’m dying!”

“Doctor! Nurse!” some people called,
“Police! There’ll be a fight!”
Others there were more circumspect,
“Careful now! He’ll bite!”

Here and there and everywhere
Was bedlam, bash and crash,
As tumult spread, the office head
Cried: “Someone’s nicked me tache!”

Moustache stolen? What a thought!
Well, that’s not very clever!
They stood and stared: his facial hair
Seemed sprouting strong as ever.

They gathered round, and said to him,
“Look in the mirror, sir!
“Your tache has not been nicked or pinched –
“Such things do not occur.”

He raged like fire, like chips in frier,
“How dare you have the gall!
“How dare you lie! How dare deny!
“You’re traitors, villains all!

“This filthy rag upon my lip,
“This fetid, threadbare broom,
“You think I’d place this on my face?
“You think I’d give this room?

“I’ll soon teach you a thing or two –
“Come here and take a gander!
“If you opine this eyesore’s mine
“I’ll sue you all for slander!”

He moped and muttered, spat and spluttered,
And in his diary wrote:
“Never cut anyone any slack –
“They’ll all be at your throat!

“Those dunces, neds, those dung-filled heads,
“They can’t see! No-one knows!
“My tache is swiped in broad daylight
“From under my very nose!

“If I’d my way I’d dance all day
“While pulling at their taches,
“And scrape their heads with massive spades –
“Those birdbrained loons! Those asses!

“Moustaches can’t be bought or sold –
“Who mocks my tache maligns me!
“I am my tache! The rest is trash!
“What’s on my lip defines me!”

 

 

Bypassing thought

“I’d rather people feel a film before understanding it” Robert Bresson once said in an interview. T. S. Eliot had said something similar: “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.” Art can, in other word, bypass thought, and still affect us.

In one way, I rather like this. After all, I’m damned if I can understand Bresson’s Pickpocket, say, or Eliot’s “Little Gidding” – at least, I’m damned if I understand these works well enough to account for the effect they have on me. And yet, they do have an effect on me: I can’t deny it.

But in another way, it bothers me. If one can respond, even respond powerfully, to something before one understands it; or even, perhaps, without ever understanding; can one then not respond to any old thing? What then of our powers of discrimination that we so pride ourselves with?

Of course, I tell myself, there is much one can love deeply without understanding. If, after all, one had to understand the principles of counterpoint to enjoy listening to a Bach fugue, poor old Johann Sebastian wouldn’t be left with too many admirers. And similarly with visual arts. Earlier this year, as I stood in the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris, in those great oval rooms, surrounded on all sides by those vast water-lilies of Monet, by those dazzling, resplendent splashes of colours, I felt quite transported. But were I imprudent enough to try to write a blog post about them, I don’t know that I could say anything more interesting or more meaningful than “I like them, and think they are very good”.

Indeed, now I think about it, much of writing on arts, perhaps most, could be reduced to that. “I like it. I think it is very good.” Or maybe “It rocks”. Or, conversely, “It sucks”. For who needs articulacy when you don’t have much to say in the first place?

And this, I admit, bothers me, because, while I do accept the truth of Bresson’s dictum (and of Eliot’s), the logical end of their pronouncements seems to be the death of dialogue. If understanding is not the point, then why go beyond “It rocks” and “It sucks”?

I pose these questions rhetorically, of course, but if I cannot at least attempt an answer, much of what I write on this blog would be quite meaningless (if, indeed, it isn’t pretty meaningless as it is). And I think my answer may be along the following lines:

While gaining an understanding may not be essential to appreciation, it surely helps.

Recently, I watched Robert Bresson’s last film, L’Argent, made when he was an old man in his 80s. It is a challenging film, as I think the expression is; which, in other words, means it’s hard to figure out what the hell it’s about. Bresson seems, towards the end both of his career and indeed of his life, to take his trademark austere style to its very extremes. The narrative line is elliptical, with the causes of the various effects we see never quite made clear; the actors have clearly been instructed merely to speak their lines clearly, without the slightest hint of expression; and it is left entirely to the viewer to figure out what these characters’ motivations are, or, indeed, what it all signifies. For, presumably, it all does signify something: it is clearly not a set of random events strung together arbitrarily. But how do I know this? I mean, how do I know that this is not merely a set of random events strung together arbitrarily, when, to tell the truth, I can’t make too much sense of it all? I’d answer that the film affected me. Rather strongly. But is this enough? Is a mere subjective response on my part, a response I cannot account for in any objective terms, a sufficient criterion of artistic merit?

Well, yes, it is, if one believes that the very concept of artistic merit is merely subjective. But I don’t believe that. And there’s my problem.

For whatever reason, I cannot leave it there. I cannot just say “I like it” (“It rocks”) and leave it at that.  I had to think about the film as best I can, allow it to enter into my consciousness. The plot is based on a late novella by Tolstoy, The Forged Coupon. In that story, the simple act of passing on a forged coupon has all sorts of unexpected knock-on effects, and Tolstoy shows us a small act of evil – so small, indeed, that “evil” may seem too strong a word for it – escalating into something enormous. And then, in the second part of the story, Tolstoy shows the opposite effect: a single small act of human kindness similarly escalates, and has knock-on effects, but in a different direction. Tolstoy’s work is, of course, a moral fable, and while some, I know, think of it as evidence of the decline of a once great artist, I personally think of this novella as amongst the world’s greatest literature. But be that as it may, Tolstoy’s purpose, unlike Bresson’s, could not be clearer.

Bresson takes this story, and shows us only the first part. Two boys pass a forged banknote, and the cumulative effect of this thoughtless action grows, until it seems to engulf humanity itself. But the counter-action – the spreading of Good – Bresson does not show. He takes the spread of evil to its end – omitting quite deliberately many of the links in the process – and then leaves us there. So yes, Bresson’s film, unlike Tolstoy’s story, is a deeply pessimistic work: it sees evil as triumphant, and humanity helpless. But if this were all, it would not have affected me so very powerfully. “Evil is all-powerful and we are helpless” seems too trite an observation to be the basis of a great work of art.

So what else is there to this film that affected me so? To get a better grasp of the film, I needed not merely to feel, but to understand – to understand why the characters act as they do. And yet, those are the very aspects of the film that Bresson chose to leave out. So, naturally, it was up to me to try to fill in those gaps. I have felt the film, as Bresson had wanted me to: but I found it deeply unsatisfactory to leave it there. I needed also to understand. And maybe, if I did, I could feel even more intensely.

It isn’t easy: Bresson was not merely a devout Catholic, he was also a Jansenist, and the modes of thinking this implies are very alien to my sensibilities. But it does seem to me that the principal character, having already attempted to kill himself, becomes so filled with hatred of his own self that he wants to damn his own soul. Mere physical destruction isn’t enough: through some strange workings of his mind that are outside the normal orbit of my own, he has to destroy himself spiritually too.

Now, there is no point in wondering whether or not this is the correct interpretation: since Bresson himself refuses to explain, any explanation that is not inconsistent with what is in the film is valid. A work of art isn’t, after all, a crossword puzzle – a code one has to solve to arrive at a correct answer. However, having reached at least some sort of understanding, however inadequate and superficial, I needed desperately to know what others have made of it. For the perspectives of others can but deepen my own.

I searched on Google, but I must admit I didn’t really find anything that was particularly valuable. Maybe I was looking at the wrong places. But I am not looking for a solution: there aren’t solutions to these things. What I am looking for is dialogue – something a bit more substantial than “it rocks” or “it sucks”. For the more one can understand, the better one can feel.

Ultimately, all works of art, of any substance at all, ultimately lies beyond our understanding. Even works we are well acquainted with. I have known King Lear, say, since I was eleven: I have seen many performances, both on stage and on screen; I have read it and re-read it for nearly 50 years now; I have even read books and essays about it. But do I really understand it fully? Could I account for all this play makes me feel? No. Ultimately, these things remain a mystery. But without making the effort at least to understand what I can, I would not have been able even to approach this mystery.

Looking back at the quotes with which I started this piece, I notice there is one word they both use. “I’d rather people feel a film before understanding it.” “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.” (My italics.) Feeling may indeed come before understanding, but that is not to say it replaces it. And nor does analysis (which is no more than structured thought) destroy feeling, as so many seem to think. Quite the opposite. True, we may never pluck out the heart of the mystery that any work of art of any substance, I think, possesses; but not even to make the effort reduces us merely to passive spectators. And to engage adequately with a work of art, we need to be far more than that.