reading

It's been an abominable summer for reading. But Thursday night at Tim's parents' house, I picked up Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (Jeanette Winterson's new memoir), read 90 pages, and then had to take it home with me so I could finish it early on Saturday morning. I am now on a Winterson kick. This is why--she says:

"Christ's injunction that his followers must be twice-born, the natural birth and spiritual birth, is in keeping with religious initiation ceremonies both pagan and tribal. There has to be a rite of passage, and a conscious one, between the life given by chance and circumstance and the life that is chosen. 

There are psychological advantages to choosing life and a way of life consciously--and not just accepting life as an animal gift lived according to the haphazard of nature and chance. The 'second birth' protects the psyche by promoting both self-reflection and meaning. 

I know that the whole process very easily becomes another kind of rote learning, where nothing is chosen at all, and any answers, however daft, are preferred to honest questioning. But the principle remains good. I saw a lot of working-class men and women--myself included--living a deeper, more thoughtful life than would have been possible without the Church. These were not educated people; Bible study worked their brains. They met after work in noisy discussion. The sense of belonging to something big, something important, lent unity and meaning.

A meaningless life for a human being has none of the dignity of animal unselfconsciousness; we cannot simply eat, sleep, hunt and reproduce--we are meaning-seeking creatures. The Western world has done away with religion but not with our religious impulses . . . 

We shall have to find new ways of finding meaning--it it not yet clear how this will happen. 

But for the members of the Elim Pentecostal Church in Accrington, life was full of miracles, signs, wonders, and practical purpose." (67-68)

And she says:

"There was a person in me--a piece of me--however you want to describe it--so damaged that she was prepared to see me dead to find peace.

That part of me, living alone, hidden, in a filthy abandoned lair, had always been able to stage a raid on the rest of the territory. My violent rages, my destructive behaviour, my own need to destroy love and trust, just as love and trust had been destroyed for me. My sexual recklessness--not liberation. The fact that I did not value myself. I was always ready to jump off the roof of my own life. Didn't that have a romance to it? Wasn't that the creative spirit unbounded?

No.

Creativity is on the side of health--it isn't the thing that drives us mad; it is the capacity in us that tries to save us from madness. 

The lost furious vicious child living alone in the bottom bog wasn't the creative Jeanette--she was the war casualty. She was the sacrifice. She hated me. She hated life." (171)

So much of how she describes her ideas (the human significance of religious ritual) and her upbringing (the results of growing up in a house where a compelling, sometimes comforting religion became twisted together with extreme instability, irrationality, and unhappiness), and her work to become healthy and sane through her own writing (she notes in the book that from the very beginning, she had to pit her own narrative against the narrative of her adopted mother) chimes--almost uncannily--with my own thoughts and experience. Forgive my presumption. It is exhilarating to find a kindred spirit. And also that books are still here.

(If you've got an hour to spare.)

As a reader?

"As a reader, I often feel I can detect the spoor of word processing in books, particularly long ones. The writers--no longer slowed by having to change their typewriter ribbons, fill their fountain pens, or sharpen their quills--tend to be prolix."                                                                 

- Anne Fadiman, from "Eternal Ink"

from The Maytrees by Annie Dillard

"After their first year or so, Lou's beauty no longer surprised him. He never stopped looking, because her face was his eyes' home. No, what so endeared her now and forever was her easy and helpless laughter. He felt like the world's great wit. She worked, walked, stood, or sat like a mannequin, shoulders down and neck erect, and his least mot slayed her. Her body pleated. Her rusty-axle laugh sustained itself voicelessly and without air. At table, if she was still chewing when the laugh came rolling on her backward like a loose cart, she put a napkin on her head. Otherwise she dropped on the table. If it slayed her yet more, she knocked the table with her head in even beats. Or her long torso folded and her orbits fell on vertical fists on her knees. Unstrung with hilarity, she lost her footing and rolled down a dune. More than once--anywhere--she dropped backward and straight-legged like a kid in diapers.

He fell in love with Lou again and again. Walking, he held her hand. She seemed, then and now, to roll or float over the world evenly, acting and giving and taking, never accelerating, never slowing, wearing a slip of red or blue scarf. Her mental energy and endurance matched his. She neither competed nor rebelled. Her freedom strengthened him, as did her immeasurable reserve. Often she seemed the elder. She opened their house to everyone. Actively, she accepted what came to her, like a well-sailed sloop with sea room. Her face was an organ of silence. That he did not possess her childhood drove him wild. Who was this impostor she sang with in college--how dare he?"


Oh Anglo-Saxon

Thus, after the eradication of Latin and Greek derivatives:

"For most of its being, mankind did not know what things are made of, but could only guess. With the growth of worldken, we began to learn, and today we have a beholding of stuff and work that watching bears out, both in the workstead and in daily life.

The underlying kinds of stuff are the firststuffs, which link together in sundry ways to give rise to the rest. Formerly we knew of ninety-two firststuffs, from waterstuff, the lightest and barest, to ymirstuff, the heaviest. Now we have made more, such as aegirstuff and helstuff.

The firststuffs have their being as motes called unclefts. These are mighty small: one seedweight of waterstuff holds a tale of them like unto two followed by twenty-two naughts. Most unclefts link together to make what are called bulkbits. Thus, the waterstuff bulkbit bestands of two waterstuff unclefts, the sourstuff bulkbit of two sourstuff unclefts, and so on. (Some kinds, such as sunstuff, keep alone; others, such as iron cling together in chills when in the fast standing; and there are yet more yokeways.) When unlike unclefts link in a bulkbit, they make bindings. Thus, water is a binding of two waterstuff unclefts with one sourstuff uncleft, while a bulkbit of one of the forestuffs making up flesh may have a thousand or more unclefts of these two firststuffs together with coalstuff and chokestuff.

At first it was thought that the uncleft was a hard thing that could be split no further; hence the name. Now we know it is made up of lesser motes. There is a heavy kernel with a forward bernstonish lading, and around it one or more light motes with backward ladings. The least uncleft is that of everyday waterstuff. Its kernel is a lone forwardladen mote called a firstbit. Outside it is a backwardladen mote called a bernstonebit. The firstbit has a heaviness about 1840-fold that of the bernstonebit. Early worldken folk thought berstonebits swing around the kernel like the Earth around the Sun, but now we understand they are more like waves or clouds."

- Poul Anderson, from "Uncleftish Beholding"


that's an odd expression



"When I get up in the morning, also a very unpleasant process, I jump out of bed thinking to myself: "You'll be back in a second," go to the window, take down the blackout, sniff at the crack of the window until I feel a bit of fresh air, and I'm awake. The bed is turned down as quickly as possible and then the temptation is removed. Do you know what Mummy calls this sort of thing? "The Art of Living"--that's an odd expression."

- The Diary of Anne Frank, 92





"In his preface to Akhmatova's first book, Evening (1912), poet, playwright, and critic Mikhail Kuzmin grasped the dramatic turn Russian poetry had taken with the appearance of these 46 poems. He compared Akhmatova to members of an ancient Alexandrian society, who each day pretended they were condemned to death, in order to make their everyday impressions more poignant."

I would clear away every slovenly obscurity I could and labour to make myself as clear as my plain meaning could be carried

"Yes, indeed. A very big element of that obscurity which is one of the mysteries and one of the glories of poetry, because labour as we may and labour as we must we can't tell really from whence it comes, and this is why I have always honoured the noble obscurity of poetry and deprecated the slovenly obscurity: I would clear away every slovenly obscurity I could and labour to make myself as clear as my plain meaning could be carried in order that the noble obscurities, if they come, may have their full weight and value. Because even in scraps and crumbs of poetry, in bits of old ballads, bits of ballads that Shakespeare embeds for instance--they make one's flesh creep with this mystery which is as much of the flesh as the spirit I think: 'Childe Rowland to the dark tower came"--he felt it too or he wouldn't have so embedded them into his text. And such phrases as 'How should I your true love know?' beyond their content, their plain meaning, there are depths of mystery, of obscurity if you like, and this is one of the major characteristics of poetry, one of its great raison d'etres and something we should be thankful for when it comes, and which we should labour to make clear and not to let anything slovenly through, so the thing itself, when it suddenly appears, may be seen to appear."

- Ruth Pitter

from the chapter on Tropes

"Try, for instance, to imagine time not as money but as a plant (or organism). It may seem difficult and even counterintuitive, but it's not impossible:

'The day blossoms'

'The past is our roots, the future our branches'

'Human history sometimes bears strange fruit'"