I came late in life, and almost by accident, upon the work of W.G. Sebald. The Rings of Saturn only popped up because a friend– who still doesn’t have that much trust in literature– felt compelled by a piece of scholarship to read the late German great, and then further bound by friendship to notify me that he’d found an exact literary fit for my mode of being in this world. Since then, I’ve read everything of the author’s I’ve been able to get my hands on, and have even watched a documentary on him that somehow managed to make itself as beautifully haunted as its own subject matter.
Just as I was so long ignorant of work so close to my own heart, it’s taken me eons to become aware of Philip Hoare, whom Sebald himself admired. A few days ago, I finished Hoare’s The Sea Inside, an exploration mostly centered around cetaceans and seabirds and the environments they call home. Although not as laden with the spectral as is his German colleague, Hoare seems to absorb in welcoming fashion the sea and the air and the fauna that share it, communing easily not only with whatever inhabits the present moment, but also with creatures whose kind disappeared from the earth long ago– stylish catlike beings and lumbering bird-giants too disturbingly other to our human ancestors for the latter to allow them even to continue existing.
This comfort in dwelling with past and present, near and far, is hinted at early on, when, listening to the weather forecast on the radio, Hoare hears with pleasure announcements about “places I’ll never visit but whose names reassure me with their familiar rhythms, while their remote conditions seem strangely consoling.”(1) I immediately perked up when I read this passage, sensing a kindred spirit. The combination of scratchy radio and the knowledge that there actually exists some mystery destination, close enough to be connected by sound waves, but entirely dependent on one’s imagination for existence in thought: the allure is plain for dorks who spend most of their lives dreaming up true, if not-quite-real, worlds– especially for those of us who every now and then find a hint of transcendence on the AM dial, eerily connected to the other side of the continent, where an ultra-local announcement about farm implements for sale, or the parish news in Cajun French, is going on.
That unpredictable, somewhat neglected band of radio provides its own kind of nostalgia for presently occurring things, or a narrow entrée into apparently closed communities. In its own way, (good) writing should do just that, and more; I get the sense that maybe, just maybe, good writing enables that expansion of empathy better than most other mediated channels of mental and emotional exploration.(2) As a recent article by Tim Parks argues, reading writing we just don’t understand might very well broaden and deepen, if not our outright empathy, at least our willingness to believe that there are entirely other modes of life going on all around us– that we are not the final arbiters of how existence should proceed or be run.
We can’t absorb reading in one quick gulp; in taking the time to move from the understanding of one word to another, and of the connections between and among them, we’re forced to witness something unfolding, one detail at a time, at least somewhat at that something’s own– not our– pace– as opposed to the flash of a complete picture on a screen or a page. As Hoare looks up at a night sky filled with constellations, he wonders at the “ancient patterns created by minds yet to be overwhelmed by the images that fill our waking day.”(3) That consolation he found earlier in the recitation of names of never-seen places: would that feeling still be there, or be any different, if he were still living in an analog world, or one in which television screens hadn’t yet become ubiquitous? Were Hoare not instantly able to pull up photographic images, if not of those exact locations being read out, then something very near and/or similar to them, would his sense of consolation be a bit more tenuous? Would his wondering at the stars be somehow different, were he not able to Google pictures of and detailed information about them at any given moment?
Might the ability contemporary technology has given us to view even the remotest of places, whether the entire length of an unpopulated island or the darkest interiors of our own viscera, contribute to a hasty presumption of familiarity with that which is other? That need that so many of us seem to have to believe “they’re just like us,” from politicians to celebrities to tribal-based societies, erects barriers not only to really knowing those multiple “theys;” it also prevents us from wanting to step outside our own little worlds, to confront possibilities beyond our own or allow those others to speak for themselves. It’s not that reading can’t result in, or even encourage, this sort of willful blindness. (Just look at all the propaganda that’s gotten even the American public where it is right now.) But the instantaneous visual flash of landscape or people may provide us with only a cheat sheet– something that, in being adequate enough for a starting point or surface-level summation, can’t possibly count as robust knowledge. Even Hoare’s real-life glimpse of the constellations in his sky– a present viewing of a collective image– can’t give him the full understanding of their meaning for people dependent on their positions to figure, for example, changes of season or locations at sea.
My allegations are, I know, old hat; I know I keep harping on the absolute necessity of our being able to read our reality for what it is, and to use all the resources we have at hand in order to build and maintain that capacity. As we become ever more impatient, begrudging the time needed to accomplish even the smallest of tasks or transactions, bothering to slow down and interpret words– even as we willingly communicate with each other (think emojis in place of text, as one huge example)– comes to seem like a tremendous burden. And as we lose the capacity to wield our words wisely and creatively– as we allow images of all sorts to replace those words– I worry about the attendant decrease in our capacity to wonder with all the power we’re able. And if that wonder is gone– well, what’s the point, anyway? Maybe that’s what it means for everything and everyone else to be just like us, or for us to be just like everything else: the whole universe floating along in one big sea of visions, watching it all pass by in a daze.
(1) Philip Hoare, The Sea Inside (Brooklyn: Melville House, 2014), 4.
(2) Note I said “mediated”– because obviously, there’s probably nothing better than live, face-to-face interaction with another human being for realizing that each I is not a closed world unto itself. For a much fuller, better-articulated rumination on this theme, see Merve Emre’s recent piece on the personal essay in the Boston Review.
(3) Hoare, 36.
It’s happened again, although in less interesting fashion: not all that far into Sjón’s The Blue Fox, I was confronted with the leavings of a previous reader. My predecessor apparently forgot about or had no interest in the promotional offer that ceased to be of value almost three years ago, choosing to use this key to what I surmise would have been some natural nosh as a bookmark instead, or maybe even sticking this little coupon between the pages, not having had any other place to put it at the moment of receiving it, and almost immediately erasing the knowledge thereafter that it had ever come into her/his possession.
It did give me brief pause to wonder who the one-time holder of this card had been, and why s/he donated this excellent book. (Was it deemed not good enough to keep? Was this just standard practice, after having finished a volume?) But there really was no air of mystery about this bright-hued promo, or none worthy enough, at least, to be cast alongside the tale’s characters, or its really spectacular ending.
The Blue Fox was one of two books I finished on lengthy train rides this weekend– the final of which provided me with a chunk of time large enough to also get a solid way through Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes, which I plucked off the bargain shelf of a suburban St. Louis used bookstore before my return journey home. It proved to be magnificent train reading, feeling as it does somewhat like Sebald lite. That lo-cal adjective isn’t in any way meant to disparage the project; de Waal’s exploration of family treasure is, so far, beautifully engaging– but its poetic history is less overtly haunted by spirits that may or may not still be hanging around the author’s own life. Hence the “lite,” as in, less burdened* by the demands of continuing pasts, even as it searches about in days gone by to explain what the author holds in his hands in the present.
Well. I’m now back in the super-short train trips that make up my daily commute, and so there’s no romance of long-distance rail travel to enhance de Waal’s family history. There’s a possibility, though, that a trace of a past reader somewhere in the pages could still pop up, if I’m lucky.
* This term, too, is not employed in any negative way; Sebald’s tendency to carry the weight of simultaneous pasts and presents in his writing constitutes one of the most beautiful and deeply satisfying writing styles I know.
Not even illness could keep me this weekend from devouring the remaining half of The Earthquake Observers, sucked in as I was by its winning combination of an inherently interesting topic and the atmosphere of European modernism that pervaded most of the work.* I was especially fascinated by Coen’s discussion of various scientists’ late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century attempts to form something of a universal catalogue of seismic activity, to “be perfected from year to year, [and] become the fundamental repertory of the entire seismological science of the future.” But unsurprisingly, this aspiration was short-lived, given the number of qualifying occurrences in even one year, for just one country or region. As one sponsor noted, once it had become possible to record “macroseismic and microseismic observations… on the surface of the globe with the necessary fullness of detail and generality, the work of the annual global catalog will become completely unrealizable; the central office will be literally overwhelmed… can one imagine the International Meteorological Association publishing an annual catalog of rainfall on the surface of the globe?”**
The enchantment here for me was the fact that this endeavor, and the resigned reactions to its impossibility, seem as if they could have come straight out of Borges, a natural-sciences add-on to “On Exactitude in Science,” or “The Library of Babel,” maybe even “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” For all we know (Coen devotes only a couple of pages to the wished-for catalogue), the project may have driven some of its real-life booster-creators to obsession or worse, even after its necessary sponsors and support staff had withdrawn under the pressures of reality and the ever-increasing numbers of events that transcended human abilities to pin them down in any meaningful way. Given our contemporary technologies and their superhuman recording and processing abilities, maybe such an undertaking is more achievable than ever before– but, thanks to the natural world’s wonderful ability to slip out of our grasp via the masterfully unseen cracks it’s created, I’ll place my bet on its never happening.
Even though this aspect of seismology seems still doomed to failure, the way in which the science has always been and still is dependent on “lay” observers may be one of the reasons I’m such a fan.*** Indeed, I especially appreciated Coen’s pointing out of the not-just-science-benefitting ways in which this participatory model might (have) enhance(d) the lives of those who go in for observation of the earth’s motions. Including the entirety of one woman’s letter to geologist Hans Schardt as an example, Coen notes that talking to people about what they experienced during a bout of shaking or shifting “was a social opportunity, particularly for those living in solitude… [within] the atomization of modern society,… [it] offered a welcome excuse to penetrate the social walls that separated neighbors from each other.”**** Such an aim never was part of “pure science”– but if one of its branches not only benefits from, but also bestows boons upon, the people of all sorts working to further it, I’ll call that a win, even if the universal knowledge we like to believe is such an unalloyed grand thing never materializes.
* N.b., it also continued to feed my need for modernist– or in this case, neo-modernist, as I’ll call it– literature, as I also swallowed whole W.G. Sebald’s excellent set of essays, A Place in the Country.
**Deborah R. Coen, The Earthquake Observers: Disaster Science from Lisbon to Richter (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2013), 175, 177.
*** In my earthquake-zone-dwelling days, I would get stupidly excited and grateful any time I had even the most minutely plausible opportunity to fill in information on the U.S. Geological Survey’s “Did You Feel It?” website.
**** Coen, 94.
Teju Cole: I’d read an article or two by him, and was impressed enough to keep an eye out for his books whenever I’d wander into a store. But until the other day, the timing just never worked out; I always had some more pressing purchase to make, and not enough funds to bring in another book, especially since I’d always only find Cole’s stuff new. I should have realized early on that said fact might just be due to his stuff being the kind of high-quality writing you don’t want to part with once you’ve got your hands on it.
And so, one of my favorite local purveyors of the written word came to my rescue, when they featured a lone, new copy of Open City on their $5 bargain shelf. But I’ll have to admit to being irritated at first; like many a New Yorker, or a transplant to the city, Cole is pretty heavy on the geographical name-dropping during the first part of the book, assuming that describing his walking routes by listing the streets and parks and buildings he passes will be enough for the non-native to form a picture of the scene. Yes, we know you’re in the know about New York City; congratulations on being so sophisticated and hip. The rest of us bumpkins who don’t do more than visit every now and then will meet you at the next point in the narrative containing a description that can give us a real clue about what you’d like us to be feeling and seeing.
I also couldn’t initially figure out what this book was supposed to be; fictional foot-based travelogue? A search for family? But then I stopped trying to shove the piece into a genre or agenda, and let myself enjoy Cole’s really beautiful writing style– and found myself happily amazed to feel as if W.G. Sebald had handed him the task of continuing his projects of crossing unmarked boundaries between memories and contemporary life and history, giving no easy clues about whether certain events actually happened or not.
Speaking of one of those occurrences, one of the things I ended up appreciating about Open City, in line with its constituting an ambiguous method of storytelling, was its leaving open-ended just what happened in the wake of our being informed about something terrible for which the narrator seems to have been responsible (but maybe not?). Towards the end, a piece of information punches full throttle into our emotional gut– and then nothing more is said about it, leaving us to wonder what really went on, and to ponder the protagonist’s sometime emotional detachment, hints of which glimpse out of the narrative from time to time.
Because I may be about to veer off into unrelated territory, I’ll sum up the review section of this post by saying I can’t wait to read more of Cole– and if I’m lucky enough, to imbibe even a little of his own way with words. But here we go: sudden transition.
(Transition Indicator, to make it official, or maybe to indicate a mere unrelated afterthought)
Early on, Cole has one of his characters talk about the way in which things he’s read have lodged in his mind: “Now I don’t remember the exact words of them anymore, it’s been too long, but I need only the environment created by the poems.”* The man does go on to say that just a line or two will allow him to recall “what the poem says, what it means,” a gift that goes much further than my own frequent inability to tell a person what I absolutely loved about a certain work, or even what it was about– only that the feeling that came with reading it, and even the place and/or time in which I read it, is strikingly unique and easily identifiable. And so although I can’t go further than recognizing “the environment created by” certain works that continue to hold a solid place in my heart and mind, the relief of seeing someone who’d be able, I think, to understand my faultily loving brain, was great enough to make me give a shout-out to that scene, and to the man who put it on paper.
*Teju Cole, Open City (New York: Random House, 2011), 14.
Claudia Rankine: I’ve wanted to read Citizen for a while now, but anytime I come across it, I don’t have the funds to hand out what the store’s charging. But the other day, I spied her Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric on the shelves while volunteering, and grabbed it. Even before the poet explicitly mentions Derrida or Hegel or Levinas, you can tell she’s had ample dealings with word-loving philosophers– and by that I don’t mean those who engage in the stale logic games of the analytic camp, but rather, the continentalists who go at meaning and deconstruction in a more existentialist vein, if it’s at all accurate to phrase it that way. With that adjective, I don’t want to indicate followers of existentialism, but those who in some sense look for the soul that stands behind and works within the words we use. An example? I don’t think it’ll ruin anything for anyone to quote from the last couple of pages of her book:
Here. I am here. This conflation of the solidity of presence with the offering of this same presence perhaps has everything to do with being alive.
Or one meaning of here is “In this world, in this life, on earth. In this place or position, indicating the presence of,” in other words, I am here. It also means to hand something to somebody– Here you are. Here, he said to her. Here both recognizes and demands recognition. I see you, or here, he said to her. In order for something to be handed over a hand must extend and a hand must receive. We must both be here in this world in this life in this place indicating the presence of.*
Being alive: being present, handing over, extending a hand, receiving what is offered. Not a basic economic exchange, but deceptively simple involvement that entails handing over one’s entire self, and having that self recognized and accepted by the other whole self on the receiving end. Perhaps the only true counter or prophylactic to loneliness, which emerges even in the presence of others, if those others are unwilling or unable to engage fully in this un-transaction.
There’s so much more to discuss about this book; one of the richest crumbs for follow-up thought she hands us is a reflection on sadness:
“Sad is one of those words that has given up its life for our country, it’s been a martyr for the American dream, it’s been neutralized, co-opted by our culture to suggest a tinge of discomfort that lasts the time it takes for this and then for that to happen, the time it takes to change a channel. But sadness is real because once it meant something real.”**
There’s also the scattered use of images throughout– not in themselves necessarily fantastic, but effective in terms of lending something to the accounts and words Rankine is using. It’s a different employment of pictures and photographs than W.G. Sebald’s; in themselves, her images are less inherently haunting than his are. “Unobtrusively forceful” might be a better way to describe how Rankine’s come across.
In short, though, the book or collection– I don’t know what to call it, or even her work in general, really, and I actually like that fact– is a fantastic one, and I’m chomping at the bit to delve into more. (And my super-dream? Producing a similar image-word hybrid, and one that even remotely approaches the quality of Don’t Let Me Be Lonely.)
* Claudia Rankine, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric (Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2004), 130-1.
** ibid., 108.
I’m not especially good at book clubs or organized discussion groups. It’s an odd thing to say for 1) an insatiable reader and 2) someone who spent the better part of her first three decades of life in discussion-heavy seminars and learning environments. But I do love those spontaneous conversations that spring up around mutual love or puzzlement or hatred of some phrase or piece of work that impacts at least one interlocutor to such an extent that it forces itself into some thought that won’t rest until it’s been shared with others (and maybe not even then).
I have managed to stay involved, though, in a Greek mythology reading group, wrapping up its life in a few days when we finish our prolonged exploration of Herodotus’s Histories. What’s kept me involved here? Good personalities, which are blessedly devoid of any tendency to shove their opinions all over the place in an effort to hear the sound of their own droning voices. No felt necessity to aim at profundity or to grant a book more importance than it deserves. No pre-set questions. No ulterior motive, such as gossip and fancy food-sharing, in coming together around a book. A willingness, in this instance, to see the unintentional humor in some of the proto-historian’s declarations or the situations he describes. (One of my favorites? Sending a secret directive to a distant ruler to rebel– by shaving a messenger’s head, tattooing instructions on it, letting the hair grow back, and then setting the courier on his way. Nice work, that.)
Part of it may be, too, that although I haven’t found an ancient Greek drama I don’t like, I’m not die-hard devoted to our subject matter. Try to entice me into a discussion circle on Infinite Jest or W.G. Sebald, though, and I’ll run for the hills; there’s no way I’ll subject the experience of spending time with these soul-savers to pre-scheduled analysis and dissection.* Maybe my understanding of the facts or symbolism of a given work is poorer thereby– but that’s generally not why I read, for pleasure, at least, nor is it what makes progressing through a work enjoyable. To say I value the viscerality– not the escapism– of reading above all the other things said activity can offer may seem a little too strong, but I’m comfortable with the assertion for now. If you want to weigh in on these musings, let’s have that discussion– but please, without an agenda or pissing contest.
* Again, as opposed to off-the-cuff, organically arising discussion with other enthusiasts.