Monthly Archives: April 2008

The Echoing Grove

I wrote earlier about not exactly loving Rosamond Lehmann’s novel The Echoing Grove; I was interested in the book in a sort of detached, intellectual kind of way, but it never grabbed my attention and made me love it.  I did love her book A Note in Music, and I was hoping for more of the same but didn’t quite find it.  This has something to do with my mood; I’m not in a mood to think very hard about my fun reading (I picked up a Georgette Heyer novel, Venetia, after finishing Lehmann), and The Echoing Grove was more challenging than A Note in Music.  But I’m not sure it’s just a matter of mood.  I suspect that even if I’d wanted a challenge this book wouldn’t have satisfied me, and I would have still preferred the other.

In both cases, Lehmann works with a small group of characters, describing in great detail their mental and emotional states and their relationships with one another. She writes about friendships and love affairs, about desire and longing, and about shifting moods and emotions. So what makes The Echoing Grove more challenging than the other? She does interesting things with point of view, which can sometimes make the book a bit hard to follow; while the novel is written in third person, she will suddenly slip into first person and give us a character’s thoughts directly. There are passages that slip into stream of consciousness narration, with shifts in time and topic that are disorienting. There’s a particularly long example of this early in the novel, and I began to wonder just what I’d gotten myself into, but the novel returned to more straightforward narration eventually, and I decided to keep plugging along. There are also long sections of intense, emotionally-draining dialogue, of the sort that made me wonder whether people really talk that way (I felt similarly when reading Elizabeth Bowen). There is also a complicated time structure in the novel – the narration jumps around in time so much that I had a hard time figuring out what took place when.

So what is the story about? Simply put, Madeleine and Dinah are sisters; Madeleine is married to Rickie and Dinah has an affair with him. You can imagine, I’m sure, the family tension this creates. Madeleine is a fairly conventional woman, raising a family and participating in an acceptable social circle, while Dinah is more adventuresome and bohemian, getting caught up in love affairs with questionable men and disappearing for long stretches of time, doing nobody knows what. The novel begins with a meeting between the two long-estranged women, an awkward meeting where they seem to want to discuss their past but are hesitant. It then moves back in time to tell their history with occasional returns to the present moment to chart the sisters’ attempts to make amends. Although other characters make appearances, the interest of the novel is in the nature of these three main characters – Rickie’s haplessness when it comes to women, Dinah’s free-spiritedness countered by her suffering, and Madeleine’s calm patience and longsuffering.

My struggle with the novel was simply that I never came to care a whole lot about these people, and the formal elements, while interesting, weren’t enough to make up for my lack of emotional connection. I certainly don’t need to be emotionally connected to every book I read, but something has to catch my attention and either make me feel or make me think or, ideally, both. Now, if my description of the book intrigues you, don’t be scared away by my doubts – you may find a way into this book that I couldn’t. And I certainly am not turned off of Lehmann forever; I plan on reading more of her work, and I fully expect to like it.

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Race report

My races the last two weeks have been unspectacular, but I did at least finish both of them, making it up to the finish line with the pack, albeit at the back (I just found out I got 14th out of 17 riders). Today’s race was the hardest of the three I finished; we were a little faster than the previous races, at 21.2 mph, and there were many attacks, lots of chases, and several near disasters as I fell a little bit behind and had to work as hard as I could to catch up, or, if I was lucky, had to stay on someone’s wheel and trust that she could pull me up to the pack. A racer whom I’ve talked to a few times at various races had fallen behind and gotten lapped but after getting lapped joined the pack again — she was riding along with me at the back on the last lap, and when we were in danger of falling behind she made a superhuman effort to bridge the gap up to the pack and I followed gratefully on her wheel. I thanked her for the pull and she laughed and said no problem. It’s fun to help each other out; I may not have been able to help this particular racer, but I know pulled along a rider or two, at least for a little while.

So now this race series is over, but I have another race at a different location (Massachusetts) in two weeks and a week and a half after that the Tuesday night series starts. There’ll be lots of racing coming up — lots of chances to suffer and sweat and try to get stronger.

And oh, my, is there suffering involved. It’s not just the cramp in my side as I ride or the fatigue in my muscles as I climb that goddamn hill for the 22nd time or the splitting headache I develop at the end of the race; this afternoon as I was sitting in my chair grading papers, I could feel a deep ache settle into my muscles that’s with me right now. I’m waiting for the Advil to kick in. Oh, yes, racing is fun.

And now I’m going to indulge myself with some fun reading. I’ve finished The Echoing Grove and am now ready to start something new. I’m not sure what it will be, but I’m looking forward to choosing.

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Wasting time

Alan Lightman’s closing essay “Prisoner of the Wired World,” from his book A Sense of the Mysterious, is interesting, although not entirely original in its argument. But it has made me think a lot over the week or so since I finished it, which surely is the mark of a good essay. Lightman opens the essay this way:

Not long ago, while sitting at my desk at home, I suddenly had the horrifying realization that I no longer waste time.

He goes on to describe how connected we all are, through our computers and our cell phones and other forms of technology, and how all this connectivity means that the pace of life is faster and we spend more and more of our time working, at the expense of enjoying the kind of down time that nourishes our souls. He lists what he sees as the unpleasant effects of the wired world (developing each item in a paragraph or so):

1. An obsession with speed and an accompanying impatience for all that does not move faster and faster… 2. A sense of overload with information and other stimulation… 3. A mounting obsession with consumption and material wealth… 4. Accommodation to the virtual world… 5. Loss of silence… 6. Loss of privacy…

The essay is a call to resist this speed and unthinking acceptance of technology; Lightman argues passionately for taking time to be still, doing nothing, and letting our spirits flourish.

I’m drawn by this argument, although suspicious of it at the same time. I find that people who criticize modern technology, especially the internet, rarely take the time to acknowledge sufficiently all the good it can do people. The internet can be a distraction and it can be a way to keep us chained to our jobs (answering student emails, for example) so that we rarely enjoy true leisure, but can’t it also be a place where that leisure can happen, where we can explore our minds and spirits, express our thoughts, and find people who think the same way we do? I find the internet to be an exciting, freeing place, a place where I can take risks with writing and read people doing the same thing. At the same time as I’m writing my blog posts, though, I’m sometimes checking my work email. I suspect tons of people have this complicated relationship to technology, and I wish I found it reflected in the writing on technology I encounter.

That said, I believe strongly in doing nothing and think I should do more of it. I suspect, also, that I should spend less time on the internet, hard as that may be. There’s a restful quality to time spent goofing off outdoors, for example, that I don’t experience goofing off online. But however I decide to do nothing, I hope to be able to keep doing it.

So I’ve been thinking about Lightman’s essay and have been more conscious of moments I allow my mind to drift. One of my favorite moments is in the morning when I have a chance to linger in bed after I’ve woken up. I think about my day, but I also think about … nothing. My mind works this way when I’m walking or riding my bike too. These things don’t feel like work to me; they feel like an escape from work.  A friend asked me today what I think about when I’m riding, and I had a hard time answering her. Sometimes I think about things I’m working on or plans for when I get home, but other times — a lot of the time — I can’t even say what’s on my mind. I like this. I like riding for all kinds of reasons, but one of them is that it gives my mind a break.

So even if I don’t fully agree with him, I’m grateful to Lightman for making me think of all this — for reminding me of the value of doing nothing and wasting time.

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Wednesday whining and some poetry

This semester is dragging along, as slowly as it possibly can. I really don’t like wishing for time to pass by, as I feel like I’m wishing my life away, and that can’t be a good thing, but still … I’m longing for summer when I’ll have more time to read and sleep and ride my bike and go to yoga class and walk and read blog posts without feeling rushed. My semester, unfortunately, goes all the way through the middle of May and then some, so I have over a month left. Not that I’m counting or anything (okay, I have 4 1/2 weeks, dozens of classes to teach, hundreds of meetings to attend, and thousands of papers to grade, or something like that).

Unfortunately, I’m in a bit of a reading rut too, as I’m not enjoying Rosamund Lehmann’s novel The Echoing Grove as much as I thought I would. I loved Lehmann’s A Note in Music and thought I’d like anything she wrote. But The Echoing Grove hasn’t captured my attention and imagination as much as I’d hoped. It’s slow-moving and narrow in focus, but neither of those things is a problem for me, as I generally like that sort of book. It’s about relationships and love and family, and I generally like books about those topics. But in this case the characters haven’t grabbed me. I’m having trouble figuring out what to make of them, and I’m not finding myself very interested in their fates. Surely this is a bad thing. It was quite the opposite when I read A Note in Music, as I found myself responding emotionally to the characters and the situation. I’m not going to give up on Lehmann, though; I’m convinced I’ll like her other work. It’s just this one that’s not working for me.

I did begin a book of poems, which I’ve had a hankering to do for a while; I picked up Wallace Stevens’s Collected Poems. I’m not expecting to read through the whole collection, as it’s quite long, but I thought I might try to read the first section, his 1931 collection Harmonium, and then decide where to go from there. So far I’m enjoying the poems, although they are not yet knocking me off my feet. When I find one that does, I’ll post it here.

As for poems that do knock me off my feet, though, there is the work of Gerard Manley Hopkins, a poet we covered in my class today. I’m not a religious person these days, but Hopkins almost makes me wish I were. How can you read a poem like this one and not be tempted to believe in God?

Glory be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spáre, strange;
Whatever is fickle, frecklèd (who knows how?)
With swíft, slów; sweet, sóur; adázzle, dím;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is pást change:

Praise him.

I love the way Hopkins uses sound in the poem, for example, the alliteration that appears in nearly every line: Glory/God, couple/colour/cow, fresh/firecoal/falls/finches, plotted/pieced/plough, trades/tackle/trim, fickle/freckled, swift/slow/sweet/sour. This is a poem that simply must be read out loud to be fully experienced (true for most poetry I suppose). Hopkins likes to use alliteration and other sound effects because they reflect the design he sees in the world around him — the design created by a God taking great care of the world he’s made. Hopkins also likes to write lines that are difficult to read out loud, lines with odd rhythms and strings of words that you have to work hard to spit out: “fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings” or “with swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim.” As you are reading it, you are forced to slow down, which makes you linger over the words and perhaps take more time to consider their meaning. Reading a Hopkins poem out loud makes the words feel like physical things themselves; you can almost feel them in your mouth as you read.

And if I were to believe in God, I’d want to believe in one like Hopkins describes — one who has created and sees the beauty in “all things counter, original, spare, strange; / whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?).”

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Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil

I have recently finished listening to W. Somerset Maugham’s novel The Painted Veil on audio, and I had a fabulous time with it. Now, I do tend to enjoy books in a simpler, more visceral kind of way when I listen to them, so I can’t say what my reaction would have been if I’d read the book, but I’m pretty sure I would have liked it that way too.

Its charm comes from the simplicity of the tale — generally speaking it charts the course of a marriage — combined with the complexity of the characterization. It tells the story of Kitty, a foolish, vain, and inexperienced woman who panics when her younger sister marries well, and in response immediately becomes engaged to Walter, a man below her social ambitions but one who has asked her to marry him when other once-plentiful suitors have stopped appearing. After the marriage, they head off to Hong Kong where Walter works as a bacteriologist; here Kitty meets Charles Townsend, an attractive, flirtatious man who quickly seduces her. This is the point where the novel begins, with Kitty deeply in love with Charles and afraid that her husband has learned about the affair.

Once the truth has come out, Walter forces her to accompany him to a province in mainland China where a cholera epidemic is raging. His ostensible reason for traveling here is to put his medical training to use to help stop the epidemic, but Kitty fears – with justification – that the real reason is to ensure that she catches cholera, as a punishment for her unfaithfulness. Kitty is terrified of the new place, seeing things she earlier had no inkling of – poverty, death, bodily decay, political unrest. The sisters of a nearby convent invite her to visit them, and she soon begins to help them with their charity work, raising young girls cast off by a society that sees them as a burden.

So, as you can guess by now, the story is about Kitty’s growth from a selfish and inexperienced person to one who begins to look outside her own small concerns to see the larger world around her. She learns something of the true worth of her lover Charles and also of her husband, who, though he is ready to commit an indirect sort of murder, is not portrayed in the novel as a monster, but as a man who is passionate and foolish in love. The pleasure of the novel, for me, lies in following the twists and turns of Kitty’s growth, as she comes to realize exactly what she has done to her husband, her lover, and herself. Maugham sticks to Kitty’s point of view, so we see the world through her eyes and watch it open up for her.

Another pleasure to be found comes from the relationship of the novel to the novel’s prologue; in the prologue the narrator (or Maugham himself) tells the story of traveling in Italy and learning Italian from a young woman who uses Dante in their lessons. From Dante he learns of the story of a man who suspected his wife of having an affair and took her off to a place where she was bound to catch an illness and die. When she fails to die soon enough, he arranges to have her pushed out of a window. The narrator broods over this story for weeks until he decides to use it in a novel of his own. I won’t tell you the extent to which the plot of The Painted Veil follows the story from Dante, but the effect of the prologue is that you know, or suspect you know, the plot events that are coming, and you can observe how Maugham leads you toward the conclusion, hoping all the while that what you suspect is coming won’t come after all. There is something enjoyable about watching an author lead you towards a known – or suspected – conclusion.

As much as I enjoyed these aspects of the novel, though, I was bothered by the portrayal of China and the Chinese. The English colony in Hong Kong is guilty of a kind of racism that is disturbing – they simply don’t see China or the Chinese, as though they don’t exist except as a source of servants – but the novel makes clear the hideousness of this attitude and one of the things Kitty must learn is to see the humanity of the Chinese people. More bothersome for me was the way China became merely the backdrop for a tale of western spiritual growth. China in the novel is a place westerners travel to in order to learn something about their own spiritual emptiness, at which point, the lesson learned, they move on. It becomes a source of enlightenment, a place where, with the aid of its beautiful landscapes and mysterious ancient religious traditions, people are able to question who they are and what they are seeking in life. It’s important for what it can teach westerners, not for what it is in itself.

So ultimately I had mixed feelings about the novel. This, too, offers its own pleasures. In my experience so far, Maugham has not let me down (Of Human Bondage is a great novel), and I’m looking forward to reading more of his work in the future.

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The language of dance

Last night Hobgoblin and I went to see a dance performance in New York City. This was a new experience for me as I’d never been to a professional dance performance before.  We went with a colleague of mine and her husband; she is the one whose class on creativity and the arts I am sitting in on this semester in order to teach it myself in the future. Part of the training process I’m undergoing is for my mentor and I to attend some arts event of our choosing, which the school will pay for. So I decided I wanted to see an art form I’m not terribly familiar with, hence our trip. 

We saw a performance by the Stephen Petronio Company; there were two dances in the first half of the show, the first one loosely telling a story about a woman at a beach who meets a sexy but amusingly ignorant man. The second one was more abstract; it had music by Rufus Wainwright that used poetry by Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson in the lyrics. What stood out to me most was the point when the lyrics began repeating Dickinson’s line “Hope is the Thing with Feathers”; the entire dance was performed in simple costumes with nothing on the stage and lighting that would change with different sections of the music, and at the point where Dickinson’s line began, the light warmed to a bright orange color and the dancing was exuberant and acrobatic – hopeful – with lots of leaps and pirouettes. After an intermission a longer piece was performed with five sections, each one with different music and a different concept. I didn’t quite figure out how all the pieces fit together, but each one had, if not its own story, then an idea or a feeling that the dance communicated.

I have trouble when it comes to describing the dances themselves, though; I have a much easier time writing about costumes, lighting, and music. These things seem more concrete to me. In my colleague’s class we are talking about terms with which to analyze dance, terms such as line, stage use, symmetry and asymmetry, geometrical patterns, and form. I was able to pick out some of these elements in the dances; I noticed now and then the use of the canon form, or I’d see how the bodies were symmetrical or the use of line was particularly effective or the choreographer was using space of the stage in an interesting way. 

But when it comes to dance moves themselves I don’t really know what to say; I recognized some moves that come from ballet, but there was much more going on and I have no vocabulary with which to describe it. I watched some of the more intricate scenes, and I couldn’t imagine how the choreographer could possibly think all this up. I know there must be a dance language, a vocabulary of moves and a tradition of how to put these moves together – a syntax I suppose – but I know nothing of the language and so feel speechless.

We talked about this after the performance and I found others felt similarly uncertain, and it reminded me of how some people feel about poetry and the challenge of analyzing a poem. Readers don’t need a critical vocabulary to respond to poetry, but without it they can feel at sea and so shy away from attempting a response at all.

What was interesting for me, though, was the degree to which I was comfortable with knowing I was not fully getting it, knowing that while I was appreciating the beauty of the dance there was so much communicated through it that I couldn’t understand. I think I am much more comfortable dealing with not getting it in dance than I am in poetry, an area I have much more experience with; when I come across a poem whose meaning I feel I can’t penetrate I can get frustrated because I feel I should get it, whereas with some of the more obscure dance sequences I didn’t mind feeling lost. There was something freeing about not having the expertise to fully understand what was going on. I could relax and just let it happen. That’s not to say I would ever want to give up what expertise I have in order to approach a poem with that freedom, but I did appreciate how experiencing something new forced me to find the pleasure in being a beginner.

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A Sense of the Mysterious

I’ve been enjoying reading Alan Lightman’s book A Sense of the Mysterious: Science and the Human Spirit; I am nearly finished, with only a few essays left. The essays I liked best were the first few; these first looked at Lightman’s life and his experiences in science and novel-writing and then turned to his ideas about creativity, science, and language. There follows a series of essays on famous scientists including Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman, and others. These essays are interesting, each one telling a little about the scientist’s life and contributions plus something about their quirks as people and as researchers, but I prefer the more theoretical essays that look at science more broadly. I think the remaining essays may turn again in this direction.

One of the things I love about the book is how sensitive Lightman is to what happens to a scientist when he or she is working, what goes on in their minds and how their bodies are involved in the process. He describes his own experiences of inspiration, the moment when he finally breaks through to the core of a problem and finds he can solve it, and the description is intensely physical:

Then one morning, I remember that it was a Sunday morning, I woke up about five a.m. and couldn’t sleep. I felt terribly excited. Something strange was happening in my mind. I was thinking about my research problem, and I was seeing deeply into it. I was seeing it in ways I never had before. The physical sensation was that my head was lifting off my shoulders. I felt weightless. And I had absolutely no sense of myself. It was an experience completely without ego, without any thought about consequences or approval or fame….

The best analogy I’ve been able to find for that intense feeling of the creative moment is sailing a round-bottomed boat in strong wind. Normally, the hull stays down in the water, with the frictional drag greatly limiting the speed of the boat. But in high wind, every once in a while the hull lifts out of the water, and the draft goes instantly to near zero. It feels like a great hand has suddenly grabbed hold and flung you across the surface like a skimming stone. It’s called planing.

This feeling is not unique to science, of course; it’s a feeling one can have in any creative moment, but it’s interesting to me that while science can seem so cerebral, Lightman draws attention to the way it affects the scientist’s body as well as his mind.

Not only does scientific discovery manifest itself physically in the scientist’s body, but Lightman says the scientific manifestations can be different than those of art:

Over the years, I have learned to recognize the different sensations of science and of art in my body. (Sometimes the sensations, such as the creative moment, are the same.) I know the feeling in my body of deriving an equation. I know the different feeling in my body of listening to one of my characters speak before I have told her what to say. I know the line. I know the swoop of a idea. I know the wavering note. Most of the time, these feelings all swirl together as a rumbling in my stomach, a wondrous and beautiful and finally mysterious cry of the world ….

Am I mistaken, or is this kind of writing, physical and mystical at the same time, not at all typical of science writing?

Not only does Lightman write about how the body is involved in scientific discovery, but he writes about emotion, too, and aesthetics. He quotes the mathematician Henri Pointcaré on the subject:

The privileged unconscious phenomena, those susceptible of becoming conscious, are those which directly or indirectly affect most profoundly our emotional sensibility. It may be surprising to see emotional sensibility invoked à propos of mathematical demonstrations which, it would seem, can interest only the intellect. This would be to forget the feeling of mathematical beauty, of the harmony of numbers and forms, of geometric elegance. This is a true aesthetic experience that all real mathematicians know, and it surely belongs to emotional sensibility.

“Mathematical beauty,” “geometric elegance” — doesn’t this make you want to become a mathematician? It has that effect on me, at any rate. He goes on to talk about how Einstein and others were surely motivated by aesthetics when they looked for new theories, and he gives examples of scientists who judge theories based on their beauty or ugliness or elegance:

The Nobel chemist Roald Hoffmann tells his students that it is the awareness and appreciation of the “aesthetic aspects of science,” rather than mere quantitative analysis, that leads to discovery.

This makes me realize that science and art are not so far apart after all, which, I’m sure, is part of Lightman’s point.

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