September 8, 2012 § Leave a comment
Bettines letzte Liebschaften shows the now 50-ish Bettina von Arnim, made famous by her youthful correspondence with Goethe and now an established senior cultural figure herself, traveling several hundred miles through a snow-storm to meet her youthful poet-correspondent, in hope of consummating the heretofore merely epistolographical affair. Once tete-a-tete in his quarters, the poet begins to duck, evade and change the subject, and when he is finally openly pinned down and forced to declare himself, denies volubly that he finds her too old (not an ageist, he) but claims that his erstwhile passion died in response to reports of Bettina’s similar attempts made recently on two other youthful poets. She admits she has made such attempts, but claims now to live only for him – all to no avail.
Youthful poets are happy to “do a Bettina” – i.e. establish their fame by way of amorous correspondence with senior high profile poetesses – but their eagerness for literary achievement may not necessarily extend to acts of physical self-sacrifice. And fiftyish established poetesses (and poets) – when he wrote it, Dieter Kuehn – no, not the East German footballer who is the only German of that name with an English wikipedia entry – was fiftyish himself – become desperate enough to follow every lead, several at once. Time is running out, there isn’t enough of it left to do them sequentially.
November 1, 2011 § 14 Comments
A wistful longing for a good book — why not a learned epic? (oh, cry for the lost Thebais of Antimachus!) — led me to The Rings of Saturn, said by reviewers to be learnedly digressive; alas, I came to it with over-expectation. Sebald’s digressions are almost all on subjects I already know — indeed, know well enough to spot mistakes in (e.g. black dresses in Poland did not become de rigeur until after 1863, etc.); and they add almost nothing to what is already in the public domain, neither reflection nor, for the most part, beauty.
The one exception seems to be the last two pages of Chapter I, written in beautiful baroque style (“the winter sun shows how soon the light fades from the ash” etc.) — its beauty well attested by its frequent quotation in the blogosphere — but only seems: it turns out not to be Sebald’s but Thomas Browne’s — the topic of the digression — and is, rather embarrassingly, quoted without credit.
I should have known to continue avoiding the book — for I have avoided it for years on the basis of who had recommended it to me years ago: a mousy under-read girl with a hopeless literary ambition; I had never heard her say anything original, or noble, or interesting: her recommendation had to miss, no matter who favorably reviewed the newly filmed version. (The Economist, Patience).
Reading The Rings is only somewhat like playing the far more delightful game of “flip the encyclopedia” (so agreeably played in a panoramic window on cold, bright Sundays) in which one entry leads to another; for the game let’s you take any direction you fancy and does not oblige you to read twice anything you already know. (It’s all the easier done with hyperlinks and Wikipedia does well on many topics: some entries — like Operation Vijay — amounting to veritable academic treatises).
A college acquaintance played this game with The Oxford Dictionary: a well-read pianist, deep and sensitive, delicate and polite, full of good conversation — his game had made him delightfully eloquent and, to give vent to his eloquence, though we lived but two stone-throws apart, we exchanged frequent handwritten letters. But, like many pianists, he was a broken soul, partly for his struggle with desperately covered-up homosexuality, but mainly for his insistent deathwish: at the time when I knew him he imagined — and let it be known — that he was suffering from terminal melanoma which his Christian Science forbade him to seek to remedy.
It drained me emotionally to struggle with his struggles, his frequent depressions, his fear of death; and having been tricked once already into a similar relationship some years earlier, at the tender age of sixteen — a relationship in which the other party — a barely older aunt, as it happened — by feigning disease or tragedy bleeds us of empathy like a spider sucks a fly — I was by then too knowing to let that sort of thing linger; and shook off his friendship without explanation; no doubt confirming in him thereby the tragic misperception that I left him on account of his sexual, not his emotional, deviancy.
How convenient homosexuality can be in helping its owners avoid true self-knowledge!
Years later I heard he had managed to make his death wish at last: a lover had (apparently intentionally) infected him with the wasting sickness. The deathwish is the easiest of all to fulfill.
Years later yet another person like this, also an aunt, latched onto me; a person whose entire life was but an uninterrupted series of tragedies and failures, many, one suspects, perhaps (subconsciously?) intentional, for she artfully used them to generate pity. Such people, like lampreys, suck you but do not kill you; like insinuative poison, they waste you but not unto death. And, as no amount of tenderness will make them better because being bad is their source of living, the healthy party’s only sensible course of action is — to flee.
Which is what I had done with my eloquent friend. I have often missed his eloquence: such like is almost nowhere to be found.
I wonder about Sebald: is there perhaps not enough epic here? It isn’t clear what linkages exist between one digression and the next, the plot, such as it is, does not support them; as a result of which it all seems haphazard — as well as dull.
He’s well liked, for all this. I wonder why. Are all his lovers mousy girls with literary ambition and nothing interesting or noble to say? (Apparently not).
I put the book away and fell asleep with the night-light on. I must have slept an instant, no more, because the dream, when I woke, seemed but a shapeless fragment and I had to carve it out from that part of memory which borders on imagination. In it, I had been walking down a narrow corridor on the second floor of an old house somewhere in the northern climes; as I passed, a room opened on my left, sunk in the blue-grey light typical of north-facing rooms in the temperate zone; its shadow framed an open window in which a autumnal ash tree — a mass of trembling, sparkling golden leaves — shone in a bright, cold morning sunlight.
October 31, 2011 § Leave a comment
How difficult it becomes with age to find a good book to read: one has become more demanding, both because one has seen a lot and is no longer as easily impressed; but also because one’s time is shorter — the days go by faster, there are fewer of them left — so that one has grown less forgiving of those who would waste it.
This year I have read only five or six new books to the end, most of those not because they were especially good but because they were informative, the rest lie about the house, splayed open upside down, like dead sea-gulls shot down from the sky. It is perhaps on this account that I read less in general: drawing up this year’s accounts I find no more than 30 titles this year, so far, against the usual three hundred a year as recently as 2005. Books, I suppose, go the way of women: one knows how it will go; and, worse, knows too that he doesn’t really care all that much for it.
October 13, 2011 § Leave a comment
What do women like M — and like my mother — expect? That they can hurt people and not lose their love? That people hurt by them will not try to free themselves from pain by trying to grow indifferent to their manipulation?
What goes on in their little heads? Do they expect some sort of Stockholm syndrome to unfold? Or some kind of Bergmanesque/ Dostoevskian masochist reverse-psychology, “get back here and hurt me, hurt me, do”? How is that supposed to work, now?
Perhaps they do; and perhaps not entirely wrongly: perhaps some such mechanism does operate in some human heads, as hard to imagine as that may be to some of us (thank you).
Interestingly, both M and my mother seem to have taken offense — disappeared in a huff — once they’ve found out that my mind does not work that way. My unBergmanesqueness is damnable. My unDostoevskian autonomy makes me unfit for their love. They only want to love people prepared to be their slaves.
This puzzles me: why would one want to love a slave? I can understand institutional slavery: a man might put himself willingly into that condition to escape debts or taxes (see Reid’s article on bond-servants in SEA); another might want to be his master for the convenience of being served (god knows I do use servants for that very reason). But why does that relationship need to have any psychological underpinnings? Why must there be an emotional inter-dependence?
September 10, 2011 § Leave a comment
M says that she wants me to tell her what I feel and think; but there is no point: I’d have to expend vast amounts of time and energy on explaining myself, which I do not care to do — I am too old, too tired, and too… realistic: even if I did — she probably wouldn’t understand the explanation. M’s inability to grasp how I think and feel is astounding: she has known me for 25 years; corresponded with me daily for 10; has spent hundreds of hours on the phone with me; yet, she does not understand the most basic ways in which I function.
When, in the darkest hour of my life she refused to help me – I had asked her for a $12,000 loan: a relatively small sum given her resources, but one that could have changed my life entirely; and, in the same email, sent me a photo of a $6,000 chandelier she’d just bought; telling me, in effect, that a chandelier was more precious to her than my fate; her intention was clearly to hurt me. It worked: it did hurt me. Yet, not, as she imagines, because she was showing me that a chandelier was more important to her than my fate; since by then I had come to know well that M has no clue as to what she should or should not want; indeed, in all her life decisions she seemed resolved to make the wrong choice at every turn; but because she was so transparently setting out to hurt me. It was her conscious decision to hurt me that hurt.
It continued to hurt for a long time. Which is why I stopped writing; writing reminded me of the hurt; not writing allowed me to forget. (Which, eventually, I did: the wound stopped bleeding, then closed, and, eventually, nothing but perfect indifference was left. Now, like a great philosopher, if I could by the destruction of the whole world and all the living creatures within it, relieve myself of a small twitch in my pinky, I would; and the opposite: if by inventing a cure for AIDS and malaria, or a machine that turns stones to bread, or a pill which prevents violence and war, I could relieve the same pinky twitch, I would, too: my pinky matters to me more than the whole world’s happiness or — otherwise — does. M’s, unfortunately, included).
Yet, M imagines that I had stopped writing out of vindictiveness. She imagines this, I suppose, because that is the way she functions; and because this is how the people she knows function. But I am not like that: I was hurt at the time, but if I had any feelings towards M, they were the feelings of pity. By her own foolishness she was pushing me away; she thought she was disciplining me, but she was in fact — losing me: losing the only thing that — she repeatedly declared — gave her joy. She was, in effect, punishing herself; cutting off the nose to spite the face. How could I not pity that? Yet, M does not understand it. Pity is not a feeling she understands.
September 2, 2011 § Leave a comment
M wishes to correspond with me. She does because her life is empty — there is nothing enjoyable to fill her days — and she can’t think of any way to fill them. Poor soul, she’s not autotelic.
Consequently, like nearly everyone else on the planet (also not autotelic), she feels lonely. And though it is probably true that having experienced the superior companionship I can offer — the wit, the challenge, the fascination1 — (thank you, thank you) — of course she can think of no one else with whom she could get the same quality experience; yet, realistically speaking, it can’t be all about me: unless she is willing to do for others what she used to do for me, there probably isn’t a long line of people eager to provide correspondence: out of bed, M simply isn’t an interesting person.
(And she’s getting old. Though age does not affect a woman’s performance in bed, generally people don’t know this, and the number of those willing to take a punt on her skills must be even smaller now than it was twenty years ago).
Husband as absent as ever, kids gone off to their various schools, her life’s been deprived of all those little nuisances (meals, errands) which for most of us in her position provide the semblance of meaning: her mind is free to contemplate the emptiness of her life.
In a bid to revive our correspondence, M has written me two long emails discussing herself, her life, our love, what it has meant for her, her analysis of why it has died, and her hopes for the future. The overwhelming impression from the careful reading of both is her lack of grasp of the facts. She makes numerous references to events in the past which either did not happen, or did not happen the way she says she did.
“I could never love you more than my children”, she says at one point, “can you not understand it”, utterly convinced that I had repeatedly asked her to leave them and be with me; which, of course, I never did, having always understood clearly that I can never spend in her company more than the two weeks we were usually given at a stretch. I could only suffer the boredom of her conversation and her emotional volatility for so long — essentially, until the initial passion cooled off; which, being about two weeks, put a limit on our meetings; a limit which conveniently coincided with about the amount of time she could ever have off from her family duties.
So, I never asked.
In fact, there was one clear instance of the opposite: once, when at the security control of an airport in Asia, heading back, she turned around to say that she suddenly felt she could do it — by which she meant: ditch them all and stay: right now, by not going through that gate. Gently but decisively, I pushed her through the security gate.
I was doing the right thing, she said next day on the telephone, the right thing for her husband, for her children. What was there for me to do but not to deny it? Tell her that two weeks having been up, I was sick of her and eager for her to go back and stay away for the next three months?
It is easy to accept that M might be deluded as to her condition in life, or as to why things have happened to her, these being a matter of interpretation — merely faulty cerebration; but it always surprises me to see her not remembering facts; or misremembering them.
Yet, it should not surprise: misremembering seems a pretty common phenomenon: one I observed with all kids of people, including the closest: my mother and my wife.
Those who cannot remember the past, etc., says the philosopher. Surely, as a species, we’re doomed to repetition (birth, reproduction, death) — perhaps misremembering is the nature’s way to ensure that we do? Perhaps I have been able to break the mold, to live a different life because I have… a better memory?
So, what should I do now?
Past experience teaches that to engage her in honest correspondence makes little sense: to point out where she’s going wrong in her memories, her analysis, and her myth-making would, as always, fail to achieve a thing: it would only hurt her while she firmly held onto her misconception of things.
But to take up the correspondence while avoiding the truth (pretending to agree, or merely sidestepping the whole discussion) would be a waste of my time: what would I stand to gain from a correspondence which does not address the truth, and from which, as a result, I can never hope to learn a thing?
And, indeed, what would she gain from such correspondence? I’d be giving her comfort, no doubt, but comfort isn’t an absolute good and sometimes can be harmful: here, it would merely be anaesthesizing — it would help her continue to ignore the emptiness of her life; and thus allow her to do what she’s (unawares) resigned to: perpetuate the unhappy situation she’s in; whereas what M needs — if she is ever to be better — is a good, hard, honest look at her life, its hopelessness, and the urgent need to change everything. Now.
By far the best decision, therefore, would seem not to correspond at all — in the hope that her frustration should grow as a result and eventually precipitate a confrontation with truth. Not much of a chance of that in someone her age — if she has not figured it out by 45, what chance she suddenly will at 46? — but better some chance than none at all?
Or else to tell her to shut up and come for two weeks?
1 I do not mean fascination with me, God forbid, humble me, no, but with my own ability to become fascinated with things — chased silver, maki-e, Armenian red. Though, of course, it is also fascination with me: dull, un-autotelic people, unable to develop their own fascinations, see mine and catch them — but, all too often catch them wrong, not as fascination with whatever it is that I find fascinating at the moment — Bartolo di Fredi, say — but as a fascination with me — because I am capable of being fascinated. There is something to the theory that humans, by and large, are merely a semblance of individuals, but in fact empty machines; mere machines for replicating memes.
June 12, 2011 § Leave a comment
Or: further reflections on Jerome Robbins’ En Sol
But Gillot is divinely graceful and otherworldlily beautiful (all impossibly long arms and legs, a beauty so unusual, so striking as to be un-sexual, positively… seraphinic, powers and thrones, powers and thrones, I kept thinking — see this post)
Either most evolutionary psychologists are wrong in suggesting that our perception of beauty in members of opposite sex is sexually driven (being in their view recognition of a good breeding material); or I am a cross-wired mutant: my greatest loves have hardly been the most beautiful women I have known; and when faced with some types of beauty I am moved but — not attracted.
Agnes Gillot, and the Paris Opera Ballet in general, are case in point: I find them very beautiful and can stare at them for hours (usually hitting the replay button twice), but I am neither in love, nor sexually stimulated.
And while this could be a matter of intimidation (very beautiful women are often not courted precisely because they are in the opinions of men too beautiful for them to stand a chance), it seems, in my case, very well hidden indeed: I seem unable even to fantasize about these girls. (Bah! I am… uninterested in fantasizing!)
As beautiful as I find these ideal athletes, for pleasure I seem to prefer girls with… more flesh on them. An Evolutionary Psychologist might explain that: slightly chunkier girls are better breeding material, all that flesh — evidence of good feeding. But if so then why do I find the Opera Ballet girls beautiful? What could possibly be the point? Atavism? A throw back?
Nor is this a case of intimidation (i.e. preferring easier girls): while I have noticed — with great surprise — that trashy/easy looking girls get a lot of attention from men — perhaps because seeming cheap they do not intimidate; or perhaps because their unkemptness suggests general laxity (hair refusing the control of the comb being symbolic of a… shall we say, more general lack of control), the girls I have loved have all been prim and rather severely controlled. (Such girls can turn out to be surprisingly adventurous lovers – ease (or difficulty) of getting isn’t in any way indicative of the quality of the food). This, too, is straight Evolutionary Psychology: girls who are hard to get pose less risk (of infection); but even folk psychology can explain this: when a reserved girl loves you, you feel singled out for special treatment. Such love seems more… personal, more precious. (And it strokes your vanity).
OK, so evolutionary psychology explains perfectly my sexual conduct to-date: I prefer healthy looking (good breeders), well groomed, self-controlled (safe) girls.
It does not seem to explain why I find Agnes Gillot divinely beautiful. Why thrones, powers, principalities and dominions come to mind. Or why there should be such a thing as divine beauty: things so beautiful as to make us think of them as supernatural, greater than life, worthy of worship, and — unsexual, pure. Atavism? Or — faulty mutation, a mistake in the cognitive apparatus?
The ability to sense this divine beauty may be a minority phenomenon (I am surprised by how many people seem not to… — er — divine it); but one sees it frequently enough: there exist whole branches of mysticism — in otherwise unrelated religious traditions — whose whole point is the contemplation of divine beauty. Ergo, if it is a mutation, it is a fairly common one. And if it is, then it is there for a reason.
What reason could that be?
Hey, let’s have fun with this: here’s a poll: Do you experience divine beauty? By which I mean: if you are religious, do you find God beautiful? If (like me) you are irreligious, are you sometimes faced with experiences of beauty that make you think of God/ things divine/ transcendent/ otherworldly?