I was lying on a ledge of earth deep in the bush above a great crevasse, across from a waterfall, and I was very aware of myself and the boundaries of myself, my cheek against the earth, the sounds of birds and leaves, the warmth of the earth under my body, and I thought about how exactly the same this all would be if I were still the child I had been once, even if my body would have been smaller and more supple, and I had a sudden understanding of what Tim Parks was writing about in a book called Out of my Head, about Riccardo Manzotti's theory that consciousness does not take place in our heads at all, but beyond the self, in what he calls the "spread mind". For Manzotti, there is no separate awareness of an apple taking place in the head - the apple itself is where the experience is. I read this book thinking it was another example of how philosophical rigour always seems to lead into absurdity, or depends on using words in ways no one else uses them, and argued with it the whole way through - in my head, of course, where all my words are, and where I do my thinking, and where my consciousness resides. For Manzotti, the head isn't even where I would remember that sense of the world I had, the experience of myself in the world, that constituted my consciousness when I was on that ledge. A memory still exists in the same place as it did, on that ledge, no matter what time I am accessing it from (I think this was the argument). And for a moment, there on the ledge, what had seemed impossible to understand just seemed so obvious it hardly needed to be thought. Of course I had no separate consciousness in my head apart from the world where the experiencing of the world was taking place. I was just in the world, and who I was, was the edges of myself in contact with the world where it all was going on. It was the world creating the I, not the I creating the world. Funny how connected this made me feel, though, not only with the world but with my younger self, the child I used to be.
I have been writing about simplicity in poetry (I like it) and about ornamentation as the opposite of simplicity (I like ornamentation too). But I haven’t thought through difficulty, as another opposite of simplicity. The music critic Richard Taruskin believes contemporary composers wilfully make music that is difficult to understand, that its status comes from people not understanding it and so automatically regarding it as great, as beyond their understanding. I’ve often seen this written about contemporary poetry, too, the idea that poetry lost its way with Modernism, becoming an arcane game in which “poets” convinced each other of each other’s greatness by writing things that everyone else suspected had some meaning they themselves couldn’t grasp. I think there is some truth to this, The fact that there is, I think, some truth to this can get in the way of thinking about the value of difficulty not as a kind of fraud (though even the deployment of a fraudulent difficulty can perhaps have an aesthetic value or be used deliberately to offer a kind of numinous pleasure. And it can’t be called fraudulent when poets (or technicians) use computers to generate a randomness that involves, for the reader, the same kind of difficulty of interpretation that perhaps we have come to value, as readers, for its own sake. No one is pretending, perhaps even when poetry is written by people, that the difficulty in constructing a narrative or interpreting symbolism comes from following the poet’s complicated logic, a logic beyond the reader. There isn’t any! But we might like the surprising twists of imagery, the movement from scene to abstraction, the juxtaposition of words or sentences that seem to belong to quite different texts. (Those of us who still like poetry, that is.) But there is another kind of difficulty too. Mozart wrote about his own concertos that they include passages only connoisseurs can fully appreciate, but “the common listener will find them satisfying as well, although without knowing why.” Perhaps this isn’t difficulty so much as complexity. Perhaps this complexity involves difficulty for the composer rather than the listener or reader, or perhaps the complexity itself can be difficult to follow. And there is a difference between the difficulty, or complexity, within the work itself, and the complexity of its relation to a field of practice or a tradition. A composer, or a poet, may be making moves that have a logic in relation to the work that has come before, a poem may allude to another work or to a traditional way of writing sonnets, or the traditional content of a sonnet, as when Sam Sax writes his fourteen word sonnet, a tweet on the subject of spring, time passing, the intensity of personal feeling, and complete with a volta at the end the first eight words as the tween turns towards its conclusion. Or the poem might be complex in itself, using metre for instance in ways that play off traditional metres but with variation or with a new kind of logic or cadence, or it might be complicated in its syntax, or in the way a metaphor extends and unfolds itself over the stanzas. Difficulty isn’t always fraudulent. And it isn’t the worst kind of fraud to be taken in by, either. If you are taken in by what you find in a difficult poem, does it really matter that your appreciation of it might have gone beyond the understanding of the poem’s own composer?
I had a thought about the hope that can maybe be found in bewilderment. When things are bewilderingly worse than makes any sense, it is easy to despair, because how can you know what to do about a situation which is so much worse than any accounting can account for? But perhaps it is bewilderingly worse than it could be because all of the factors that ought to make it less worse than it is are simply not in play. It isn’t that those factors are not real, and it isn’t that they mean nothing, and it isn’t that you haven’t accounted for other factors, besides the ones you have accounted for, that make the situation you are faced with inevitable. It is just that some of the factors that you would have thought would have counted for more in making things better aren’t currently in play, but will come back into effect as other factors shift. Everything that ought to be making things better than they are will eventually make things better than they are.
I am not usually a fiction writer which is why perhaps I am an early riser, because when Simon is away and I write fiction in the evenings time goes so strangely fast that I am awake late into the night before I have even washed the dishes. In Susan Stewart’s book On Longing she talks about the relation between the experience of duration and the experience of scale: a psychology experiment involved people moving little figures around in models of houses, instructed to imagine themselves that size and to make the models do what they themselves would ordinarily do in that space. They were asked to keep doing this for about half an hour, but they were given no clock, just told to stop when they felt they’d been going for about that long. Their sense of time turned out to be astonishingly proportionate to the scale of the model they were asked to work with: if they were working with a 1:12 model, they thought they’d been moving figures around for 30 minutes after 5 minutes; if a 1:24 model, it only took 2 and a half minutes for them to think the time must be up. How strange! This is so astonishing I’m not really sure I believe it. But it makes some kind of sense of how fast time flies when I am writing stories but then I wonder, why are the people so little in my head? What is the scale I am working with, since I thought I was imagining them out in the world, at a 1:1 scale, picturing the world as large as the world I live in? Are they actually contained in a head-sized space - but then isn’t the world outside me also contained in the head-sized space in which I perceive it?
(Now my neck has seized up and I cannot write. The first three chapters of the story I was writing are here.)
I have very competent friends who get frustrated by the incompetence of others and my sympathy for them is usually tempered by my sympathy for the incompetent person who has irritated them, especially because I myself am incompetent at a lot of things many other people are quite good at doing. But today I was thinking about the competence of one of these friends and wondered how innate it really was, realising in fact she has probably become so competent because her role has required her to be, in order not to let anyone else down and in order to be able to compensate for the incompetence of others. Rather than an innate gift for competence she is just more willing than most to learn how to do things and take care to do them properly. So competence has a moral aspect to it I hadn't really thought about before. This is a small thought but I think it is complete.
How can aeneous mean bronze-coloured as in “brassy or golden green,” asks the classicist Shadi Bartsch? Most of the replies to her question pointed to the copper in bronze that turns green when it oxidises, but that is a blue green, not a golden green. For Homer, the sky was bronze, but was it golden-green, or the blue of oxidation? – and the sea was wine-dark, but was it red? Are the Greeks really talking about colour at all? It is as if one culture hearing an orchestra is listening only to the pitch of the notes, and another culture is listening to the sounds the different instruments are making, so a description of the sound an oboe makes is met with the bewildered response that is sounds like a description of C# yet surely the note is more of a A, and helpful scholars finally find a way of hearing it perhaps as a rather flat B flat. But I like the idea of seeing the world less in terms of colours and more in terms of texture. Not just any texture either, but the specific texture of how light reflects off objects – a world of varying degrees of shimmer and shine, depth and detail. It makes me want to describe something as wine-light, thinking of the way the clarity of white wine in a glass is a particularly lit-up clarity, holding lightness as both brilliance and levity, and how this might describe the character of a person, just as another person could be described as wine-dark, with wine-dark depths you could get lost in.
Brian Blanchfield takes what has sometimes been seen as a problem, that poetry is mostly only read by other poets, and points out that this suggests the act of reading poetry turns readers into poets, which could be something to celebrate. Brian Blanchfield is a poet himself but such a brilliant essayist he has turned me into an essay reader, though I am not yet quite turned into an essay writer the way Jan Morris has turned me into a (sometimes) thought diarist. If poets have had to be reassured about the tendency for poetry readers to become poets, philosophers, Agnes Callard reveals, have always set out “to infect others with our need to find answers,” describing the philosopher “as an especially needy kind of truth-seeker. Like vampires, zombies and werewolves, we are creatives who need company, and will do whatever it takes to create it.” I seem to be very susceptible to the infection and here is another thought posting that starts with a question Agnes Callard raises, this time in an article “Should we cancel Aristotle?” The answer is no but not because his views on slavery or women’s rights are defensible, and not because they can be overlooked as tangential to his thinking, but because his culture is so alien to our own we can argue against his views with no fear of them being politically dangerous. But this is how we should approach all views, if we could approach all views philosophically, as if every idea could be examined without fear of the political dangers not of implementing it but of even considering it. We have a cancel culture, Agnes Callard argues, because we’ve got caught up in a messaging culture, in which “every speech act is classified as friend or foe, in which literal content can barely be communicated, and in which very little faith exists as to the rational faculties of those being spoken to.” So she calls for “the freedom to speak literally,” which I suppose is also a request to be listened to literally. I was so interested, and quite persuaded, by this framing of the issue in terms of a contrast between messaging and speaking literally, it made me wonder where poetry fits in. The literal is much more ordinarily thought of as the opposite of the figurative, the space where poetry finds its resonance. But if poetry is the opposite of the literal, it is the opposite of messaging also. I have now reached the beginning of the thought I was going to post, but only by already pruning off a few offshoots, and the thought itself is clearly going to want to branch out into quite a tangle of thinking so instead I will just stop and admire the surprising situation of poetry that Agnes Callard has made apparent, as it sits as the opposite both to the literal, and to messaging, at one and the same time.
I like sequels to stories, even if they are written by someone else, and I like reading different perspectives on the same story, like Joan Aiken’s brilliant and startling Jane Fairfax which gives us the reverse image of Jane Austen’s Emma, but I like these sequels and new perspectives only so long as nothing in the original story is contradicted, even if it might have been, we discover, only partially understood. I first wrote a story about two sisters, Hillary and Bridgid, about twenty years ago, mainly to use the spelling of the name Bridgid that, when I came across it, reminded me of my childhood fascination with the name Hillary. When I used the names again for a later story with sisters in it, this did some of the work all by itself of fictionalising what started out as a little bit semi-autobiographical. Hillary and Bridgid were becoming real characters, with a life beyond the stories they were in. This made the facts of any stories they were in unalterable truths, for me as the writer of them, and the writer of any potential sequels. But now I have revised the last chapter of The Bedmaking Competition, the novella that tells five of the stories from Hillary and Bridgid’s lives, for a second edition, and what I had written about Molly and Fred in the first edition is completely contradicted by the second edition. Two versions of the same scenes are now in print, one no longer true, one a new truth, overwriting the first version. This breaks my own rules so completely that I can’t even think of it as cheating. I think it only felt possible, and even necessary, because I’d sort of cheated when I’d made up the adolescent Molly and Fred in the first version, a version in which they were never really quite real characters. I needed Bridgid not to be winning as a sibling by having children, I explained to my own children, when I found myself having to account for Molly’s coldness and Fred’s dishevelment. I must have been reading too much Virginia Woolf, the diaries, not the novels, in which she is always measuring herself against Vanessa and in her own mathematics always coming out with Vanessa as the winner because Vanessa has children. But I was right to feel embarrassed by the characters of Molly and Fred, not because they were too fictional, but because they weren’t fictional enough, they were nothing but convention, a cartoon of adolescence lifted from parenting guides that never did anything to improve my own parenting, or my writing. So I made up a new Molly and Fred for a second edition of the novella, taking the starting points of their characters as they had been written into the early stories when they were small children and following Molly’s word-play as a toddler through to an adolescence in which she speaks only in Latin, an ambition not completely unrelated to my own adolescent intention to grow up and raise children speaking only Latin. Fred’s early insistence on wearing dresses is followed through to his adolescent sense of style, though it is a silk jumpsuit, rather than a dress, he is wearing in the revised version of the hospital scene. There were still limits, though, to what I could invent, including the constraint the revision still shared with the first version of the scene, that the dialogue had to match up with the dialogue in a story that has never been published, which tells the story from the point of view of the woman Bridgid and Hillary’s mother had run off with all those years ago. This is who comes into the hospital room, very briefly, when Fred and Molly have just arrived, and when she first sees Fred, she thinks he must be the son she believed Bridgid and Hillary’s mother was pregnant with, all those years ago when their father came after their mother and broke up this affair. So she still has to say, “he’s the boy,” and then, later, “you’re his mother” in this version of the scene, just as she does in the other version of the scene, and just as she does in a story that will probably never be written, but tells what are, for me, still unalterable facts in the fictional world of Bridgid and Hillary.
If life isn’t drained of meaning as you get older, why do so many novels end when the characters are still young, why does a Shakespearean comedy end with the marriages of one young character to another, and all their lives ahead of them? It is true that a tragedy isn’t drained of meaning any more than a comedy is, or not for the audience of a tragedy, but for the characters in a tragedy their lives are drained of meaning - whose life could be more drained of meaning than King Lear’s? Yet a tragedy seems at least as meaningful as a comedy, and even perhaps more meaningful than the Shakespearean romance I hope to be the pattern of my life, when all losses are restored, all relationships are renewed, all daughters are found and wives are turned back from stone. I don’t know whether regret is less meaningful than hope, or relief less meaningful than anxiety, but perhaps longing is the most meaningful of all these feelings, looking both forwards and backwards, because, when you long for something, isn’t this more than hoping for something in the future, aren’t you longing for something you lost that you might hope to restore?
Is a novel drained of meaning in the last few chapters, I asked in the last post, but a novel so often ends with the characters marrying, or established in life, their life charted, the trajectory set. Life is so full of meaning when you are young because you are still making up the story of your life that later you live out. Full of meaning, and full of anxiety, because what if you make the wrong choices, and set up a trajectory you have to follow through into a life you make for yourself that you don’t want to live? You have to think that, if you never know what the consequences of a decision will be, then your future won’t depend on the choices you make so much as it will on how you respond to the outcomes you couldn’t have anticipated, that you will go on making choices all your life and you might as well think, for instance, of your marriage as an arranged marriage even if you arranged it yourself, when you were so much younger you might as well have been someone else. This isn’t true, though, your future does depend on the choices you make, even if you do have to go on, and on, making more choices. Being more than halfway through my life now I am living through the consequences of decisions I made when I was young and exhilarated and wanted to be committed irrevocably to a path, almost any path, that I couldn’t turn back from. And now I cannot turn back, I cannot undo the consequences of choices I made, and I will never have the chance to make some of the choices I failed to make, I will never be able to live my twenties differently, and my children’s adolescent years can never be lived again, and I will never be able to have a dog as a child, an argument I knew made sense when I made it as a child to my parents who didn’t want to have a dog and always told me I could have as many dogs as I wanted when I grew up.