Monthly Archives: July 2006

Vacation report

The vacation was fun; getting back into regular life this morning was not. I was very close to not going in to work today, but I thought if I stayed home, I might start fretting about work things that I need to take care of, so I’d be better off going in and doing something about them. I’ve done that, and now I can begin to catch up on blogging.

I did all the things I expected to do: I rode my bike, went on a hike, did some reading, bought some books, and walked around Asheville, NC — we stayed in a cabin about a half hour north of the city. The bike ride was great: 1 1/2 hours or so of long, gradual NC/TN hills (we were a few miles from the border between the two states). On that ride, we discovered an Appalachian Trail access point complete with parking, so the next day, we drove the few miles up to the trailhead and hiked 6 1/2 miles to the top of Big Bald Mountain, my first experience of a bald. This has rekindled my obsession with the Appalachian Trail; I really, really do want to hike the whole thing at some point in my life, not necessarily all at once, but in small sections, a bit at a time.

The hike reminded me, however, that I haven’t been doing many long hikes lately; I walk a lot, but not 13 miles up and down mountains. I had sore quad muscles for two days afterwards, and I hurt my foot wearing shoes without enough arch support. The hike was most definitely worth the pain, but I have to remember once again (I forget this over and over) that being in shape for one sport (cycling) does not mean I’m in shape for something else (hiking).

Bcause of my sore foot, I didn’t get the chance to walk around Asheville as much as I would have liked, although I saw a bit of the city. This weekend was Bele Chere, a large street festival with tons of music, vendors, food, street performers, etc., so a perfect weekend to visit. I saw some of the festivities, and spent a lot of time in used bookstores, one of which specialized in rare books, although it had some affordable books too, and another a bit more downscale with a big selection of cheap paperbacks. I prefer the latter type of store; while it’s fun to look at old, rare books, I’d rather spend my time checking out books I might actually buy and that I’d feel free to write in.

I came back with three books, although I saw others that were interesting. In used bookstores I feel torn between my habit, beginning to fade away, of not buying books until I’m ready to read them, and my desire to snap up everything that looks good. I don’t want to spend money on something I may not get to for years, but I also don’t want to regret not having gotten something enticing. Anyway, I picked up a hardcover copy of Cynthia Ozick’s essay collection Quarrel and Quandary; she is someone I’ve never read but have been meaning to for quite a while. Also, Labyrinths, by Jorge Luis Borges, a recommendation from bloggers, and Richard Holmes’s book Footsteps, a book about writing biographies. I read something recently that said Holmes is a wonderful writer of biographies, someone worth reading no matter what his subject is, and this book about writing biographies seemed fascinating, and it focuses in part on Percy Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft, two people who interest me very much. It’s also about Robert Louis Stevenson, whom I hardly know anything about at all, and I’ll be glad to find something out. So, some good stuff, I thought.

I also spent an evening with a friend of mine I’ve known since college who lives in the area. We spent part of our time browsing through books in yet another bookstore, this one with new books, talking about what books we like and what we don’t. It’s a very nice way to spend time with a bookish friend, don’t you think?

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Riding and reading report

A dreaded thing happpened yesterday. I was riding my bike, about 25 minutes from home, when a bee, or some kind of stinging insect, flew into my mouth and stung me. I managed to spit the thing out, or it flew out of my mouth, I’m not sure. I rode home in pain, trying to figure out if my throat was going to swell up and make it difficult to breathe. I haven’t had allergic reactions to stings before, but still, one never knows. If necessary, I was ready to flag down a car to drive me to the hospital. But nothing like that happened; I hurt a lot, but I made it home and took some benedryl and spent the afternoon dozing and reading. I guess there are worse ways to spend an afternoon, right?

In between my naps, I read Elizabeth Taylor’s novel In a Summer Season and enjoyed it, with some reservations. Has anyone else read Taylor before? I’m not entirely sure what to think. It seemed a little slow getting going, and still, even though I’m 2/3 of the way through, not much is happening. I’m usually fine with plotless novels, but I’m the tiniest bit skeptical that there are other rewards here to make up for the lack of plot. But I’m not sure yet. There is some subtle wit, some excellent characterization, some quiet humor, some great analysis of conversation. Part of the problem, I think, is that I picked this up after Saramago’s novel Blindness, which dealt with such large issues and had a much broader scope of character and event. In contrast, Taylor’s description of upper/upper-middle class people with money problems just doesn’t seem that important. This isn’t really being fair to Taylor, I realize. I like novels with a smaller scope too.

And last evening, when the soporific effects of the Benedryl had begun to wear off, I felt up to tackling some more of Elaine Scarry’s book On Beauty and Being Just. She is pulling together a definition of sorts, although perhaps I should say she is describing some of the qualities of beauty, since she doesn’t claim to offer anything as definitive as a definition. She began the book talking about how beauty replicates itself:

Beauty brings copies of itself into being. It makes us draw it, take photographs of it, or describe it to other people. Sometimes it gives rise to exact replications and other times to resemblances and still other times to things whose connection to the original site of inspiration is unrecognizable.

And these replications don’t stop; they continue on and on appearing in many different forms — in a drawing, in print, in a conversation. An object of beauty, then, can become immortal in the sense that it inspires unceasing replications.

A little later, she gives us two more qualities of beauty, its sacredness and its lack of a precedent, and then goes on to discuss another quality:

These first and second attributes of beauty are very close to one another, for to say that something is “sacred” is also to say either “it has no precedent” or “it has as its only precedent that which is itself unprecedented.” But there is also a third feature: beauty is lifesaving. Homer is not alone in seeing beauty as lifesaving. Augustine described it as a “plank amid the waves of the sea.” Proust makes a version of this claim over and over again. Beauty quickens. It adrenalizes. It makes the heart beat faster. It makes life more vivid, animated, living, worth living.

Beauty also incites deliberation. It has the effect of stopping us in our tracks and making us want to stare at the beautiful object, but beauty also:

prompts the mind to move chronologically back in the search for precedents and parallels, to move forward into new acts of creation, to move conceptually over, to bring things into relation, and does all this with a kind of urgency as though one’s life depended on it.

I love the idea that beauty incites a feeling of life and action; it can make us stop and stare but it also makes us create things ourselves, in whatever medium we choose to do so, even in a medium as ephemeral as a conversation. Haven’t we all read a book and felt energized while doing so? Haven’t we all gotten excited at one time or another by a beautiful sentence and felt inspired to write our own, or to copy the beautiful sentence so that someone else can enjoy it? Doesn’t that make you feel happy and joyfully alive, if only for a moment?

Scarry has begun to talk about beauty and truth; I will have to describe her argument in a later post.

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Vacation alert; and, my further adventures in cycling

So today it wasn’t a bee sting, but I did get lost. The Hobgoblin and I set out for a 50 mile ride, and my ride ended up being 56.5 miles and his 53. I took off first, expecting him to catch up with me, which he would have if we hadn’t encountered construction and a badly-marked detour. Chaos ensued. We never found each other until I arrived at home, although I did stop at a farm market to call home (yes, yes, I should carry a cell phone, I know…and carrying an ID and my health insurance card is a good idea too, yes, I agree…) and leave a message. It took me a half hour to find my way back to the correct route; the Hobgoblin, with his better sense of direction, was much quicker.

We’re off to North Carolina for a long weekend tomorrow; I’ll be back on Monday. We plan to … well, ride our bikes, read books, and go on hikes. The same things, it seems, just in a new place. But it’s nice to be in a new place, isn’t it?

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Scarry on beauty

I have begun Elaine Scarry’s book On Beauty and Being Just, a short book that looks to be utterly fascinating. I’m particularly excited because she has already quoted from Proust twice (in the course of the first 20 pages), and I’ve become interested in what Proust says about the function of beauty and art (see yesterday’s post). Is there a function of art and beauty, and, if so, what? Scarry has not answered this yet, but she has said some wonderful things about how beauty operates and has begun to analyze errors we make when it comes to recognizing beauty.

These errors include, among others, thinking something is beautiful when it is not, or thinking something is not beautiful when it really is (she discusses one of her own errors: thinking that palm trees are not beautiful when they are). Here is what she says about Proust:

Proust, for example, says we make a mistake when we talk disparagingly or discouragingly about “life” because by using this general term, “life,” we have already excluded before the fact all beauty and happiness, which take place only in the particular: “we believed we were taking happiness and beauty into account, whereas in fact we left them out and replaced them by syntheses in which there is not a single atom of either.” Proust gives a second instance of a synethic error:

“So it is that a well-read man will at once begin to yawn with boredom when one speaks to him of a new ‘good book,’ because he imagines a sort of composite of all the good books that he has read, whereas a good book is something special, something unforeseeable, and is made up not of the sum of all previous masterpieces but of something which the most thorough assimilation … would not enable him to discover.”

(I am sorry if you do not like or do not want to hear more about Proust; I’m quickly discovering that so much of what I read that’s not Proust ends up connecting back to Proust after all.) I really like this idea: don’t talk about life or beauty in purely abstract terms because the terms then become meaningless. The terms must relate to something particular. And Scarry does a wonderful job of discussing the particular in the course of considering the abstract; she references many authors, she gives her own examples, she calls on the reader to provide his or her examples, and she is particularly attune to the way beauty works on the body:

A visual event may reproduce itself in the realm of touch (as when the seen face incites an ache of longing in the hand, and the hand then presses pencil to paper), which may in turn then reappear in a second visual event, the finished drawing. This crisscrossing of the senses may happen in any direction. Wittgenstein speaks not only about beautiful visual events prompting motions in the hand but, elsewhere, about heard music that later prompts a ghostly subanatomical event in his teeth and gums. So, too, an act of touch may reproduce itself as an acoustical event or even an abstract idea, the way whenever Augustine touches something smooth, he begins to think of music and of God.

And, finally (can you believe I’ve only read 20 pages in the book, with small pages and big print!, and have come across all this already?), Scarry has wonderful things to say about beauty in the university:

This willingness continually to revise one’s own location in order to place oneself in the path of beauty is the basic impulse underlying education. One submits oneself to other minds (teachers) in order to increase the chance that one will be looking in the right direction when a comet makes its sweep through a certain patch of sky. The arts and sciences, like Plato’s dialogues, have at their center the drive to confer great clarity on what already has clear discernibility, as well as to confer initial clarity on what originally has none … By perpetuating beauty institutions of education help incite the will toward continual creation … To misstate or even merely understate the relation of universities to beauty is one kind of error that can be made. A university is among the precious things that can be destroyed.

I don’t tend to think of the work of a university as perpetuating beauty, but I really, really like the idea.

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Proust and art

I’m about 100 pages into Swann’s Way and noticing how often Proust talks about art, and how he even more often talks about reading. His descriptions of the experience of reading are among the best I’ve ever read. (I feel, as I’m reading this, that I find something blog-worthy on just about every page. How do people who try to write something large and definitive about this book do it?) When it comes to writing about Proust, what I most want to do is give you a quotation and say, isn’t that great? And then another quotation and another, and say, isn’t that just brilliant? Don’t you love it?

On the narrator’s grandmother and books:

Though she judged frivolous reading to be as unhealthy as sweets and pastries, it did not occur to her that a great breath of genius might have a more dangerous and less invigorating influence on the mind even of a child than would the open air and the sea breeze on his body.

That’s the wonder and the danger of books, isn’t it, that you just never know what effect they will have. Yes, children should read great works of genius, and, no, you absolutely cannot control how they read them or what they will learn. This lesson seems worth learning, though; again, about the grandmother:

In fact, she could never resign herself to buying anything from which one could not derive an intellectual profit, and especially that which beautiful things afford us by teaching us to seek our pleasure elsewhere than in the satisfactions of material comfort and vanity.

The novel describes a tension between art for the sake of beauty and art for the sake of moral edification. The tension appears in the grandmother’s attitude – she wants art to teach an anti-materialistic lesson and yet she thinks in terms of “intellectual profit.” The language of materialism is still there. Are we supposed to “gain something” from art? Or are we supposed to seek out beauty for beauty’s sake? Or, in seeking out beauty for beauty’s sake, do we gain something, perhaps unintentionally? The narrator (and presumably Proust) comes down on the side of art for art’s sake. This is about the narrator’s mother reading aloud from a George Sand novel; Sand’s prose:

always breathes that goodness, that moral distinction which mama had learned from my grandmother to consider superior to all else in life, and which I was to teach her only much later not to consider superior to all else in books too …

What the narrator wants is not moral distinction, but beauty. For him, any lessons to be learned from art begin with beauty, not with a moral sense.

The narrator often thinks in artistic terms, in terms of how a novelist or a painter might see the world. He thinks about his childhood view of Swann, so different from the Swann he knew as an adult, and says about the mistaken, childhood version of Swann that he “resembles less the other Swann than he resembles the other people I knew at the time, as though one’s life were like a museum in which all the portraits from one period have a family look about them, a single tonality.”

This reminds me of Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie where every portrait Mr. Lloyd paints comes to look like Miss Jean Brodie rather than the ostensible subject. The artists in both examples see what they want to see, paint what they are really thinking about rather than what appears in front of them. The way people make sense of their lives, then, the things they are willing to see and the things they aren’t, what they choose to focus on and what they block out, is similar to the way artists take the materials they have around them and transform them to fit into their own vision. It’s all an act of interpretation, and we all do it, all the time.

This interpretation, this transformation of the everyday, can happen in conversation too. Describing the “lady in pink,” the narrator says:

She had taken some insignificant remark of my father’s, had worked it delicately, turned it, given it a precious appellation, and encasing it with one of her glances of the finest water, tinged with humility and gratitude, had given it back changed into an artistic jewel, into something “completely exquisite.”

An “artist” can be found anywhere, transforming the seemingly insignificant into something beautiful. I can see why Virginia Woolf admired Proust; this scene reminds me of Mrs. Ramsay and her dinner party; Mrs. Ramsay is another artist whose medium is people and conversation, an artist who can transform a meal – a thing that happens every day – into something exquisite and perfect.

I haven’t even gotten to the reading scene, so I must return to it later, or perhaps someone else will write about it. It is a wonderful description of the way the book, the mind, and the outside world blur when one is reading.

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I finished Blindness by Jose Saramago recently; this is the first novel of his that I’ve read, and I liked it very much; it’s a powerful novel that is dark and violent but profound and moving too. The story is about a plague of white blindness that hits an unnamed city; it begins with an old man driving, stopped at an intersection, who suddenly can see nothing but white. The blindness spreads from person to person, eventually reaching nearly everybody. The city government desperately tries to do something to fix the situation; it quarantines the earliest victims in a mental hospital. They are essentially abandoned. Since no one knows what causes the blindness or how it spreads, except from person to person like a virus, everyone is terrified of contact with another blind person, and the blind people in the hospital are left to organize themselves, receiving only semi-regular deliveries of food from soldiers who stay as far away from them as possible.

For most of the book we follow a small group of internees as they struggle for survival in the hospital, which quickly turns into a vision of hell. They try to organize themselves to find their way around, to distribute the meager food rations, to find beds for everyone, to stay healthy, but how do you organize a hospital full of blind people? Even simple things like counting how many people are in a room become complicated, especially when these people have no reason to trust each other, beyond the idea, which not everyone shares, that trusting each other might help them survive. It becomes a question of deciding whether to trust other people, and risk being taken advantage of, or trying to make it on one’s own.

As I read, I found myself thinking a lot about what it would feel like to be blind, and, in a testament to how engrossing this book can be, imagining that I was blind, so that I would have to look up from my book and remind myself that I can see after all. I became so absorbed in trying to understand what life in the mental hospital was like, that I had to remind myself, no, you won’t have trouble walking out of your study and down the stairs, because unlike these characters, you can actually see. The book inspires a level of empathy that can be frightening at times.

None of the characters are named; they are known by some short description, the girl with the dark glasses, for example, or the doctor and the doctor’s wife. And their dialogue isn’t clearly separated either. Saramago doesn’t use quotation marks or new paragraphs for new speakers, and he doesn’t separate the dialogue out into separate sentences either. Everything blurs together, so that it’s difficult sometimes to know who is speaking what. He writes in long sentences, with many run-ons. I haven’t settled on a good reason why he does this, and I’d be happy to hear other readers’ thoughts on this.

But I suppose all of these techniques heighten the sense that this horror could be happening anywhere, to anybody. It’s not really important to have a specific city and specific characters’ names (although the characters themselves are well-drawn and distinct), and even to know who says what all the time. What are important are the power dynamics among the groups of people: the soldiers and the internees, the various groups formed among the internees, the men and the women, the young and the old, the healthy and the sick. Another blogger asked me what I thought of the book’s portrayal of women; I noticed the narrator drawing on gender stereotypes now and then, but it’s difficult to sort out what to make of this because the narrator is an elusive figure. The narrator moves in and out of the characters’ minds, giving us their thoughts, but at times, that narrator seems to speak for the city itself, and I don’t think I would conflate the narrator with Saramago. And at one point one of the women in the hospital, knowing she is about to be raped, worries that she will find some pleasure in it. This moment was jarring, a false note, I felt, but the rape itself is pure violence, as the woman immediately realizes. One of the novel’s main characters, a rape victim, finds a way of subverting the power dynamic involved in the rape, and this becomes an important turning point in the novel.

This is most definitely a dark and emotionally difficult read, with plenty of insights into just how depraved human beings can become. But it has a lot to tell us about what might happen in an expected disaster – both the atrocities people are capable of committing, and the beautiful, compassionate actions they are capable of as well.

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Writing and authenticity, part II

I got such great comments in response to yesterday’s post, I thought I could respond to some of them here instead of responding in the comments. This is what I don’t like about complaints that there is too much “meta-blogging” — obviously, people like blogging about blogging, based on the response it gets. So why not do it? Why not do a little thinking-through of this new genre occasionally? Bloggers are experiencing some new and interesting things, and it deserves some thought and discussion.

One of the most interesting things people talked about (it feels natural to say that people “talk” on a blog rather than or in addition to “writing” on a blog — commenting on a blog is a mix of talking and writing?) is the way they like who they are on the blog, and this “blog self” helps them deal with their “real self.” It’s like the blog is a chance to create or recreate yourself in a space that’s more easily controlled than any “real-life,” physical situation. In that space — with a pseudonym or not — you have more freedom to experiment with who you are without all the usual markers that label you in some way — one’s body, clothes, possessions, job, etc. And what you learn in the space of a blog can be carried over into the rest of your life.

For me, I’ve been learning a lot about how much fun writing is. The writing I did in grad school did not teach me that lesson. Well, that’s not entirely true; I learned that, for me, critical writing is satisfying in the way that riding a century (100 miles) is — it’s hard and painful and I wonder why I began at all, and then I find moments of exhilaration and pleasure. Sometimes those difficult-but-rewarding things are worth it — the pleasure outweighs the pain — sometimes they’re not. But the blog is teaching me that writing can be like an easy spin on a sunny, spring day: a little effort, and a lot of joy.

I like the story of Dr. Crazy, who wrote a blog and created a voice she decided she didn’t like and that didn’t suit her, and who then decided to create a new blog with a new persona to find a more flexible, more “authentic” voice (see Casey if you want to discuss that troubling term “authentic”). She carried her readers along with her from one blog to another, so it wasn’t the kind of starting over that involved cutting all ties to the old self; it more about claiming a new “space” in which to write in a new way, declaring that she’s starting over. I love it that on a blog a person can say, okay, now I’m giving you a different version of myself than the one you saw before, and readers will understand and appreciate what’s going on.

Thinking about how one’s blogging self can change one’s “real” self makes me curious about how people deal with having family or friends read their blogs. Because if the blog self is in some sense an experiment, then what do you do if people who know you know about your experimentations? Does that bother you? This is a difficult question for me, since I tend to be extremely self-conscious about how others see me (more so than other people? I’m not sure). I don’t really want to be “caught” self-consciously experimenting. People wrote about this yesterday actually, about feeling self-conscious when family or friends read them.

I’ve got a few friends whom I’ve told about the blog; I felt both that the blog is something important that’s happening in my life and that my good friends should know about that and that the things I write about are the things I want to discuss with them, and I can’t do it naturally while pretending I don’t write about those things here. I’ve dealt with this largely by declaring to myself that this space is my space and I’ll do what I want in it and I’ll refuse to feel the need to defend anything I write here or to explain what I’m up to. No one is asking me to defend anything going on here and I don’t expect them to, but that’s not really the point — the point is the declaration I’ve made to myself that this is a space to get a little free of the usual constraints I place on myself. Doing so under a pseudonym is easier, even when I’m dealing with people who know the real “me.”

Finally, Danielle, the great asker of questions, asked me about the origin of my pseudonym, and Stefanie guessed it correctly. I was looking for a woman writer or a character from one of “my” periods, 18C or early 19C who was writerly but also athletic in some way. I’m not finding any cyclists from the period, for obvious reasons, and women weren’t often known for being physically strong in the time period, or if they were they were “amazons” or something similar (yes, there’s Mary Wollstonecraft who theorized on the importance of physical strength for women, but I didn’t want to call myself Mary W.). I settled on Dorothy Wordsworth as someone who wrote (and who wrote a diary, no less) and who was known for her amazingly long walks. I’d like to be known for my amazingly long walks too, so she seemed perfect.

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