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.
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.