I wonder sometimes whether to think of a life as a series of moments or a narrative and whether it makes a difference to how you think of a life when it ends. The Romans had the dispiriting idea that you might live beyond what should have been the end of your life, but I wonder also whether the timing matters not just in terms of your personal narrative, the biographical elegance of dying at a certain point in the story of your life, but in terms of the moment of history - or stretch of history - you have lived in (or will have lived in). Would you have been lucky to have died before the Trump presidency, or before the Covid epidemic? Would you have been unlucky (or lucky, perhaps, depending on your nationality and politics) to have died halfway through the second world war not knowing who would win it? Would you be luckier to live through it and find out the ending, and would you be unlucky to live through it and find out the ending supposing, for instance, it had ended differently, with a Nazi regime in power? We live in moments but also within narratives that are not just the narratives of our own lives, but we live only in one moment of them at a time. Does it matter at what point in the story we no longer follow it, in terms of how we measure the happiness of a life? Is all there is to measure just the sum total of the moments in which we have lived, or can we only make sense of a life in terms of some larger meaning, and is the meaning necessarily formal, structured in terms of a narrative in which the ending plays a definitive part? (Answers in the comments please! (Would it make a difference to the meaning of my life should I die before or after reading the answer to my question?))
I have come up with what, to me, is a revolutionary and completely brilliant approach to spending that is so simple it might seem too obvious even to outline but its simplicity is what is so brilliant about it and I am guessing it might be like those yoga positions that some in the class are saying "but how is that possible" about while others, already in position, are asking "where exactly are we supposed to feel the stretch?" so I present my spending theory here for anyone who wants to take it up. What you do is, if there is something you want to buy, or something you want to spend money on, you consider first if you want it which you can work out by asking yourself if you would take it (or do it) if it were free. Then, if you can afford to buy it (or undertake it/subscribe to it, enrol), you do. Simple as that! And yet, it is not how I have ever really approached spending till now. Spending has always been a source of guilt and anxiety, and any attempt to justify the spending in terms of need, or comparative value, or amount of use, or any other justification only adds to the anxiety and guilt about spending because beyond essentials, the difference between need and desire is often, always, ambiguous, and comparative values are so hard to measure across different sorts of items and between items and activities, and the amount of use you will get out of something can be so hard to anticipate, and these kinds of justifications don't answer the ethics of spending discretionary income rather than giving it away. And I can even feel anxiety and guilt about charitable donations as well, as another form of discretionary spending. This is solved most simply by determining a percentage you can afford to give - the higher the better - and setting it up in advance (Peter Singer's The Life You Can Save site even offers recommended percentages for different incomes), just as saving is also best decided on as a set amount to put aside, and you can have a contingency fund if you want, too, but once your contingency fund is topped up, if you have any money left over, then you don't have to think twice, ever again, about spending it, you only have to decide - and it is not really even a decision - if you want something, and it is yours.
It tells us something about poetry perhaps that when we need to talk to ourselves about something we don't know we know, we need to tell it to ourselves when we are asleep, in images we struggle to remember when we awake, that take some interpretation, sometimes comically obvious, sometimes strangely oblique, and often taking more than one reading to fully understand, often revealing their full meaning only in relation to other images and dreams. I dreamed recently about living with a large indoor pool, more of a pond, but with, I think, a wall around it, about waist-height, in which a large fish was swimming. I wasn't sure how to care for this fish but it seemed to rise up happily enough for cat biscuits. And then a lizard, emerald green, amphibious, emerged out of the water and climbed onto a tree and from there onto my finger. I woke up with a sense of resonant possibility, a feeling of hope. It is a dream I understood, afterwards, in relation to the dreams I used to have about looking after mice, and I wondered what it meant to have moved from dreaming about furry animals, that I kept in cages, to swimming animals, that came to me from out of the water, and I read it in terms of the association I have made between my dreams about mice and my writing practice, an association I have made ever since reading about Karl Stead's interpretation of a recurring dream about feeding hens as a dream about creativity. It was a shift to cold-bloodedness, perhaps, but surely more significantly a shift towards fluidity, and movement? For some time I haven't been writing here, while I have been in pain, but I have a page of notes made recently of thoughts, things to think on, and one note was "dreams - photography," and I remembered, with a struggle, another dream, in which I was in conversation with, or in a relation with, a photographer, who had been photographing a series of traumatic scenes, perhaps from his own life, a series of photographs both terrible and beautiful. But, before he could exhibit them, before he could even print them, he exposed all the film, and all the images were lost. Now, he wondered, did he have to go through everything again, re-enact the scenes, in order to recreate the images? How strange - my notes read, "a dream about repression," but what does it mean that the images were exposed to light? I read it, on first waking, in terms of the destruction - "lost/destroyed the film" is what I'd written then, "exposed all the film" is what I have written here, "accidentally" I even considered inserting, but now I am rationalising, revising, perhaps repressing the significance of the original dream (film I began to write), in which it was an act of destruction, which meant everything would have to be replayed. (There is something interesting to think about, when thinking about photography, in the way exposing film before it is developed is how the images, the recordings, are lost.) In any case, it made me think again about the pool of water that the dream fish inhabited and the dream lizard climbed out of, and its relation, perhaps, to the pool of grief I find at the centre of myself, that I have been working to release as I work to release the pain I have felt in the body, and offers a further interpretation of the dream, if it is read, poetically, as a dream about writing, as observing the possibilities there are in writing out of grief. "Thought stalls on an event it cannot bear to contemplate, can go no further," Jacqueline Rose wrote in her book On Not Being Able to Sleep. "The task of psychoanalysis is not so much to undo forgetting, but to put poetry back in the mind." But/and the task of poetry, as it writes itself in dreams, is to do the task of psychoanalysis - it is a kind of clambering upwards.
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.
These are paragraphs without essays or books to go in.