Does meaning drain out of life as you get older, Agnes Callard asks, and nearly all the respondents say no, except for some of the younger ones, and me. I answered emotionally, not logically, and even as I was answering yes, I was thinking but is a novel drained of meaning in its last few chapters? Is a sonnet drained of meaning after the volta? When we think of an untimely death, we think of someone dying too young, before they have lived the story of their lives, but the Romans were as likely to think of an untimely death as a problem of overliving, the idea that you could live past the time you should have died. Call no man happy until he is dead, as if life were a story and you could go past the happy ending to a time when everything that made sense - the marriage to Darcy, the saving of Wilbur the pig - has become a source of regret, a dirty pig-sty with a demented, old pig, covered in cobwebs. What do we mean by meaning, narrative integrity? A sense that it matters what we do? An emotional depth or resonance to the details of how we live? Regret is an emotion that has at least as much aesthetic depth as hope. Perhaps we can live on, suffused with regret, like a beautiful sonata. Maybe thinking of life in terms of an aesthetics of emotion, rather than in terms of narrative and narrative structure, is a way of living in the present, rather than towards a future that is always diminishing.
Once I made up a philosophy thesis topic for a fictional character, an aesthetics of emotion, an impossible thesis he would never complete, but no more impossible, really, than a philosophy thesis on music as the expression of emotion. Whether there can be any logic to it or not, listening to music seems like the experiencing of emotion, or a movement through emotions, or, rather, emotion as movement, emotion understood as a movement through time. And, obviously, though very strangely, as the movement of pitch through time. Somehow, we hear notes, and the movement between notes, as emotion and what it makes me wonder today is whether the opposite must also be true and every emotion must have its musical equivalent. If a kind of transcendent, god-like composer were able to tune in to our every emotion, could every one of us be supplied with the musical score of our every moment? If it were as mechanical as that, I suppose there wouldn’t even be a need for the god-like composer (though what a way to think of God!), it would just be a matter of coding, any computer could do it. But are we always feeling emotions, or do we occasionally feel emotions in bursts of song like bursts of bird-song punctuating the day? Would the music-generating translation-programme be a constant play of music, or long stretches of silence with longer or shorter, louder or softer musical interludes? Is “neutral” an emotion, and does it have a tune to it, that would play for much of the day? Is “neutral” really contentment, a contentment that isn’t being attended to? And what makes me think I am without feeling for most of the time, or neutral in feeling, or even contented? Is this really true or is it just another example of my absence from myself, my lack of attention, and am I really roiling with feeling all the time that I could notice along with my thoughts, if I took to watching? And what kind of person would I become then, monitoring my emotions and counting my thoughts, and would I have to write everything down? But I cannot write down my emotions because I cannot write music, and even if I could, the music that has actually been written is perhaps less a record of emotions the composer actually felt than a creation of new emotions, emotions that could only be created by music, and then created again in whoever listens as if they are emotions of their own. How strange that is.
I wondered as I went to sleep last night about whether I could try a different method of recording thoughts, to answer my original question about whether I had thoughts at all, whether it was possible not to have a constant stream of thoughts, or whether I only received impressions of things, and didn’t think anything about anything most of the time, and when I did think, only thought about practical things like what to have for lunch – what if I just noted down any passing thought I had so that at the end of the day I could look over the actual geography of a day’s thoughts mapped out? It is three hours since I woke up and here is what I have thought so far. I thought about the dreams I had had, and how I was already forgetting them but could still remember the kindness in them, and whether the kindness of the friends in the dream was really about the warmth of Simon’s legs against mine; I wondered whether noting down thoughts would change the quality of the thoughts, whether it would be possible even to have a thought while noticing I was having it, in the same way taking videos of hen behaviour changes the interaction with them so that they don’t behave in the way you want to record them behaving; on how I could get up and have breakfast, and on how I could take it into the other room and curl up in bed with something to read; on hearing the cat and thinking this is not a thought, this is just something I am hearing, but wondering whether thinking that made the thought a thought, but also thinking I wouldn’t have thought that if I weren’t recording thoughts so perhaps it doesn’t count; wondering where the cat’s bowl is and whether she could have pushed it under the bookcase then remembering it was on the fridge because I’d accidentally fed her twice the night before; hearing birds and thinking that although I am only hearing them and am not having a thought, it feels like a thought, almost like a thought of my own, or a conversation I am having, or perhaps it is more like reading a poem, where the words, or the movement of the thought, the song of the thought, is given to you rather than coming from you, but still moves through you; on how many things there are on the bench and how I should put some away but how they are quite lovely being all in similar muted shades, like a quiet still life; on how the cat is looking into my eyes and whether it is different from a dog looking into a person’s eyes, being less soulful and more about conveying her interest in being fed another meal, or perhaps not even trying to convey anything but just wondering if I might be persuaded to feed her again, and looking at my expression for clues; on how some of my hens did look at me in the eye and others didn’t and how this is really the difference between having a relationship with a pet and just having a pet; on how when Mabel looked me in the eye I always felt she might be about to peck my eye out, and how different this was from how Orly or Fly looked me in the eye, or Pudsey, the Ibsen of my hens (a Jan Morris reference), or even Maude; on whether I will have thoughts when I am reading or just read other people’s thoughts and whether the thoughts I will have reading count as thoughts as I have them or only if I reflect on them and elaborate on them later; reading about how tiring psychoanalysts are finding it to see themselves as well as their patients when they analyse them over the internet, I think about how we all go around as if we are invisible and how this isn't so different from the way little children think they can hide by closing their eyes, except that, in a way, the children closing their eyes are being more sophisticated than we are when we feel invisible with our eyes open, since the children are taking the additional step of transferring the invisibility to them of the world outside them onto themselves, realising they themselves included in that world, even though they are not seeing themselves either with their eyes open or closed, whereas the mask of invisibility we go around with is based on nothing more than our not looking at our own selves; on whether the coronavirus can be said to have a colour, given that it is only ever recorded in black and white because it is only ever recorded in the dark, and though nothing has a colour in the dark, not the insides of our bodies or the chairs around the table in the dining room at night, you only need to cut open the body or turn the dining room light on to see them in colour, but if the coronavirus only exists in the dark, what does it mean to wonder what colour it would have if we could see it in the light, and at so different a scale that we would not be seeing it with eyes that are like our eyes at all, which is what gives things the colour that we think of the things themselves as having; even so, I wonder what colour the coronavirus would have, if we could see it, and feel that it does still make a kind of sense to think of it having a colour that we can't see; on how I will probably have a lot of thoughts in the shower, which is why I have such long showers; but how these will probably not be interesting thoughts; on how I will forget most of these thoughts I have had if I don’t write them down; on remembering I had I dreamt that my mother wanted me to write to my daughter about my mother's opinion that the train lines ought to go around the city, not through the city, and how I started writing to my daughter but I had been thinking myself that I wished the trains stopped more frequently at all the smaller stations in the city, and I decided that I would tell my daughter that, but for some reason writing to her meant cutting off my jeans, and there was even a way in which this meant cutting off my legs, and I woke up as I was saying that I couldn’t see why I couldn’t use paper; on how when I was arguing with Simon about why it would be better to leave doors open I felt as though this was a joke, a provocation, playing the devil’s advocate, because obviously doors should be shut, and yet actually, everything I said was true, and I would prefer all the doors to be left just slightly ajar; on how the phrase “this has legs” is used for a proposal that might go ahead, wondering what this has to do with cutting off the legs off my jeans in the dream, whose idea I am cutting off, my mother's or my own; on whether the dream is to do allowing or not allowing movement, and whether being told to cut off my legs is a demand for me to stay still; wondering why me leaving the doors open is more of a provocation than Simon closing them and deciding it is a provocation because it is a refusal to attend to Simon’s repeated request to keep the doors closed, and then wondering how it would be if I asked him, every time he closed a door, whether he wouldn’t mind just leaving it slightly open; on how many thoughts I have and how surprising it is when I wasn't sure if I really had thoughts at all; on whether I am going to be putting “on” infront of my thoughts all day long and whether this is going to become intolerable; on whether I should stop recording thoughts because it is going to be impossible to record this many thoughts; on whether I would be having so many thoughts if I were not recording them; on how it is like the way keeping a dream diary seems to produce dreams; on noticing I was thinking as I was having a conversation with Simon that this is getting in the way of me having thoughts, even though we were in fact having thoughts that we were talking about; on whether I should stop recording these thoughts now in case I stop having them or have fewer of them when I am at work; wondering why I imagine at work my mind is blank, and wondering why I thought my mind was blank at home until I found it wasn’t, and how that still doesn’t change how I imagine it will be for me at work; on noticing I feel at home in my car, which isn’t my car, but is beginning to feel more like my car now it has my CDs in it; on remembering the thought I was having yesterday in the car about not liking being my age and whether thinking about why not, and thinking about the accumulation of regret, could be a way of getting past the shame and becoming interested in my own unhappiness, the way mothers began to write about the unhappiness of motherhood, deciding to find it interesting instead of shameful; on having decided to go around the coast to avoid roadworks and how this is changing the texture of my thinking or at least the backdrop of it, and how much lovelier it is to see the sea and the rocks and a man with his dog on the beach and a girl running past me on the path than the traffic and roadworks I saw yesterday when my thoughts were so much bleaker; on there being roadworks here, too, after all, and on how much money is spent keeping up the roads; on the difference between what we know from seeing it (a lot of money is spent on roads) and on what we know from the news (although the amount on roads is on the news too); on whether I’ve already forgotten most of the thoughts I’ve had since writing the first lot down; on how this wasn’t a particularly thoughtful morning I wouldn't have thought and on how many thoughts I must always be forgetting I have almost as I have them; on whether thoughts go into a kind of temporary storage, given how many of the thoughts I had already forgotten before I started nothing them down and then, when I started to write down the few I remembered, a whole lot of others came back to me; on whether noticing what they are thinking, or even noticing that they are thinking, is what makes adolescents and people in their twenties so attractive and whether this is why they all fall in love with each other; on wondering if noticing my thoughts will make me lovelier and realising this is unlikely; on wanting to get to my office to write down the thoughts I have had driving in and wondering how to write the thoughts up, how much detail I will need to give to capture each thought without writing a thought diary entry for every thought; on whether I could take a photo of my written notes and whether this would be closer to recording the experience of remembering them; on wanting to write directly onto the website when I get to my office rather than in a word document, but worrying about the internet cutting out, which it did with my counting thoughts post, which was originally much longer and more intricate and at the same time lighter, and was a devastating loss which had to replaced with the stub of a thought that is there now in its place, rewritten half a day later; on whether I could find the same font to use and whether that would work to give the writing the same fluency it has when I write directly online; on what the relation is between a font and the shape of a thought and how this shouldn’t come in to a record of thoughts I am supposed to have already had before writing them down. This was three hours of living, and half an hour of writing out the thoughts I noticed having, and I think it is enough of a demonstration to myself that I do in fact have thoughts that I could stop here, though I may also keep up the thought diary, but what will this do to the thought diary now I have taken away the rationale for keeping it?
I am reading the new Jan Morris, Thinking Again, and it has got me thinking again about counting thoughts, which was the original purpose set out for these On entries. I think I have had more thoughts than I have evidence here for, and perhaps if I had tried harder to record a thought a day I would have had a more interesting geography of my thinking mapped out, even if it was made up of sometimes less interesting thoughts. It is what i like so much about reading Jan Morris's thought diary, the way she records any thought she can think of having on any single day. I still wonder about the maths of the thinking, though, with 130 thoughts in a book that must have come out more than 130 days after the first thought diary was published, I was thinking, even before I arrived at the thrillingly vertiginous entry for day 67 in which she writes about "being thrust, almost detonated, into a relative lime-light" when the book comes out. There are days, too, when it seems to me she hasn’t recorded a thought but only an account of an experience, an event she has taken part in or watched, without the reflection that would make a thought of it. But now I am wondering whether my own question about what counts as a thought even counts as a thought. Before I began writing it out, I had thought of connecting this question of counting thoughts to thoughts I’ve been having about the mathematics of tree-planting, which also turns out to be more complicated than I had originally accounted for, but that would have been a connection I would only have been thinking through in the writing, not a Thought I would have had before I started, which, according to my original rules, would have been cheating. So perhaps today is another day in which I haven’t actually had a thought at all.
Would you turn up at a protest even if you knew it wouldn’t be instrumental in bringing about the change the protest was calling for? Agnes Callard set a twitter poll for this question and I was surprised at how many people said yes, they would still protest, even though I had answered yes myself. I did have to think about the question before answering, but what I thought was that I would turn up to a protest even if I didn’t believe it would be instrumental in bringing about change in the same way that I would turn up to a funeral even if I didn’t believe it would bring anyone back to life. I turned up at the Black Lives Matter protest in Wellington today to express support for the protestors in America. But I do think protests are instrumental acts as well as expressive gestures, instrumental because they are expressive. They aren’t essays or arguments, and perhaps no one is going to change their minds about an issue by watching a protest, but protests are watched, they get on the news, they are talked about, and that means the issues they raise are talked about, and become what politicians are asked to address, and what opinion pieces cover, and what people are going to be thinking about when they decide who to elect to parliament. Perhaps the most important audience for the protests though is the audience of the protestors themselves, the audience for the chants they - we - are chanting, the audience for the speeches and the karakia and the haka and the stories, as we come together and become an audience.
If Dionysus is a god of identity transformation, can we see him as the god of translation? To this question, asked by Simon Perris, I say a resounding yes, I love the idea of translation as identity transformation, it is what I loved about reading the first selection of Stephanie Burt’s Callimachus translations I came across in the London Review of Books, the feeling that I was reading a Callimachus poem through a Stephanie Burt poem and that one writer was transforming into another writer right in front of my eyes. Callimachus worrying about imposing on his friends with another manuscript becomes Burt needing “to learn how not to speak, when not to hit send,” or, if not Burt herself exactly, at least Burt imagining Callimachus with a laptop, knowing how Callimachus must feel. In the prologue to the translations Burt offers an even more provocative way of thinking about the transformations of translation, when she suggests that a translation of a classical work that borrows images and objects from the time in which it is translated could be read as a form of science fiction, an form of alternative history in which computers, netflix, synthetic hormones and so on had all already been invented over two thousand years ago, or what Callimachus might have written as a preternaturally prescient science fiction writer imagining a future in which all the problems of his time and his own life took place surrounded by all these as yet uninvented inventions. And it makes me think about the science fictional quality of all writing, and all reading, which always involves a Dionysian identity transformation, when I turn, for instance, an idea, an image, some words into a poem by Anna Jackson, even if I am not turning a poem by Catullus into a poem by Anna Jackson, or when, for instance, Jan Morris writes, about her thought diary entries, that she is “getting rather tired of me,” of the “carefully-honed persona” - what a nice sort of person - in whose voice the thoughts are written. And what about the way in which, reading a Jan Morris entry, my own identity is transformed as I become perhaps not Jan Morris herself, but someone listening to Jan Morris, a friend of this likeable 92 year old? Which isn’t quite the same as the way when, reading a poem by John Keats, for instance, or even a translation of Callimachus by Stephanie Burt, I become not a listener but an inhabitant of the words and the thoughts and the emotions they express, as if I, too, am hesitating to hit send, or failing to hesitate, not having learned, perhaps not really entirely wanting to learn, when not to. And what about the even stranger fact of reading itself, which may not have been science fiction in the time of Callimachus except in the way laptops are science fiction in the translations of Stephanie Burt? Reading might have been ordinary to Callimachus but some of the earliest works he was reading, and translating, and appropriating, and bringing into the future of his own present day had their earliest origins before the written language was yet in play, when it would have been the strangest kind of science fiction to imagine that it could be possible for someone to speak to someone else across centuries in time, and without any sound being made at all, by someone interpreting coded symbols that represent not even words but sounds, sounds that the reader hears only in their own head, turning them back into words, words they might be half believing are their very own.
In an essay written in 1979 Annie Dillard writes of watching an eclipse of the sun. It is a very strange essay, circling around that moment and rewriting it again and again. It is only late in the essay she describes the approach of the eclipse which she earlier in the essay wrote about as a single moment, as a strangeness of vision. In that earlier description, the world appeared as “faded color print of a movie filmed in the Middle Ages” in which she found herself standing “by some mistake,” missing her own century, the people she knew, looking at her own husband and finding him in the film, “a platinum print, a dead artist’s version of life.” She looks him across an expanse of time, or non-time: “The sight of him, familiar and wrong, was something I was remembering from centuries hence, from the other side of death: yes, that is the way he used to look, when we were living. When it was our generation’s turn to be alive.” I loved this description of a time out of time, but when she returns to that moment, or, rather, the moment before that moment, much later in the essay after she has already described the return to ordinary life, the rapid retreat from the strangeness of that vision, she describes a very different effect, not of time stopping, not of a time out of time, but of living in accelerated time: “The second before the sun went out we saw a wall of dark shadow come speeding at us. We no sooner saw it than it was upon us, like thunder. It roared up the valley. It slammed our hill and knocked us out. It was the monstrous swift shadow cone of the moon. I have since read that this wave of shadow moves 1,800 miles an hour. Language can give no sense of this sort of speed – 1,800 miles an hour. It was 195 miles wide. No end was in sight – you saw only the edge. It rolled at you across the land at 1,800 miles an hour, hauling darkness like plague behind it.” I first read this essay in lock-down, when we had watched the virus accelerate with extraordinary rapidity, shutting down one part of the world after another, and then I read it again this week as protestors gathered to commemorate George Floyd and call for the end to police brutality, only to be met not only with police brutality in response but a President calling for dogs to be unleashed, the army brought in, tear gas to disperse a peaceful protest getting in the way of a photo opportunity. In the light of the protests, I have spent the week rewriting class lectures and setting new readings for students whose emotions are running high, whose social media feeds have no space for any other issue, whose instagram feeds have darkened with the black squares of solidarity. The speed and magnitude of the response to George Floyd’s death is dazzling, but the protests are not a darkness so much as a light, and the darkness which has so suddenly been brought to the centre of my vision has not come suddenly at all for most of the protestors whose lives have been darkened by the shadow of racism for so long. When the eclipse ended, Annie Dillard writes, everyone who had gathered to watch it hurried away, not staying to watch the sun complete its return but returning to their houses and hotels and their breakfasts and cups of coffee, hurrying to leave behind an experience that turned out to be too overwhelming to stay with. The essay, too, took a turn away from the description of the eclipse, returning to the odd, random details that travelling involves. But she keeps returning to that moment from one angle then another, and she gives the account of one young boy who recalls the “life-saver” of white light that continued to circle the darkened sun at the height of the eclipse, a life-saver of light that might be a better image for the protests than the darkness at its centre.
Under lockdown I began following twitter accounts and even sometimes tweeting a cautious tweet. The divisiveness of the politics I encountered almost made me despair, and I withdrew from twitter for a few days, but the sheer oddness of some of the tweets and posts drew me back in, that and the discovery of new poetic forms (the Etherin!). One twitter poll I had to take part in was on the subject of reading and dreaming – can you read in your dreams? I have been interested in why you can’t read in dreams for a while, along with the way no one uses a cell phone in dreams, or can drive a car. There is something technology-shy about dreams which I find wonderfully mysterious. But oddly, when I took the poll, more than half the respondents claimed they could read in their dreams! I was so surprised I had to check with Simon that he couldn’t read in his dreams (he said he didn’t know!) and then, incredulous, had to check that for him, too, whenever he tried to drive a car it would turn into a pedal car, then a sort of shell of a car around his dreaming self as he ran in a kind of sitting form along the ground (and probably with bare feet). He said no, he drove cars in his dreams, just usually over a cliff, or down an impossibly steep hill without brakes. Which might make you wonder about our marriage. Then, that night, the night after the poll and after this conversation, I dreamed I was reading. I woke up and thought, indignantly, this is a whole new way for a dream to undermine me, almost impressed at the ingenuity of my dreaming self but disturbed too at the thought of a dreaming self so actively hostile to my waking mind, not using my unconsciousness to reveal things to me I might not have access to with my usual filtered attention even though I must somehow know them in some sort of capacity, but rather playing games with me to prove me wrong and undo any kind of narrative I might begin to embark on, sleeping or waking. Last night, I dreamed I was hiding under a desk in an empty school room. Obviously this was never going to save me from my eventual discovery, or from the pouring of acid over me before I woke up. That, I thought at first, on waking, was a dream about twitter, but perhaps it was a dream about dreaming itself, if consciousness is thought of as the desk under which we are hiding when we are awake.
I was listening to a very simple, old pop song the other day and was suddenly awash with feeling, awash with tears even, a depth of feeling rather too much for such a simple song. Wondering about it later, I thought the gap between the depth of the song and the depth of the feeling was an essential part of the effect. What was so moving was the way the song resonated with a situation and a feeling I was aware of bringing to it rather than finding in it, so that the experience of listening to it was the experience also of bringing the two things together, the reality and the song. The songs I might think I like more, songs that are more specific, more complicated, more the individual expression of a singer’s sensibility, could never move me in quite so absurd a way, so lovely a way, as this song did that morning.
I could not be a farmer myself, or not without changing how I relate to animals so much I would need to become a different person than I am, but I would not want to live in a world without farming. What I would like to live in a world without is the intensive factory farming that is not what I would call farming at all but an atrocity. George Monbiot points out that the opposite of intensive farming is extensive farming, given that, even if individual farms are small-scale, to produce enough food to feed a population still projected to keep growing we would need even greater numbers of these farms than we already have, and many more again if they were to replace the intensive farms now producing so much of our food. The land used by all these small farms, in place of the fewer and far more efficient factories of caged animals, is land that could have been rewilded, full of animals living out their natural lives without interference or domestication. But there are other things we use land for we could give up in order to reduce the space we take away from the wilderness, like schools, libraries, golf courses, parks and gardens. If we all lived in high-rise apartments without any public buildings or green spaces, our cities could be a lot smaller, and if no-one lived in a suburb or small town, our cities could rise out of the surrounding wilderness like islands we would never have to leave, except for those truck drivers bringing in food from the factories, or except for those farmers who might then be able to keep farming on their small-scale, organic farms, just a little worried about the wolves. If I wouldn’t want to live in a world without libraries, parks or gardens, how can it be right to keep millions of animals in factories, in order to let other animals live wild? The amount of meat eaten now is unsustainable, but even in a world in which everyone could be made to be vegan, intensive farming of peas, soy, almonds and other crops involves the use of vast amounts of land, chemical fertilisers and animal mortality, as deer, possums, wild birds and millions upon millions of mice are killed to sow, harvest and protect the crops (one estimate finds 25 times more animals die to produce a kilo of protein from wheat than from beef), creating inhospitable monoculture tracts of land that might serve a purpose, but are no kind of good in themselves. I would rather we looked at other ways of making space for wilderness than allowing intensive farming to take place of the kind of farming in which all kinds of animals, farmed and wild, can live good lives. And extensive farming doesn’t have to mean vast farmlands, but can also mean vast numbers of small farms and even tiny micro-farming initiatives, making space for farming in our own cities, with beehives on city apartment roofs, and hen coops in our back gardens. There are too few truly wild places left but there are also too few animals in the lives of too many people and I don’t want to live in a world where human people are wholly separated from plants and animals, never meeting anyone not of their own species.