MUSIC AND MEANING

WORDS AND MUSIC

This is the text of a talk I gave to the Lyceum Club via ZOOM on September 8th, 2020. Most talks given at the Lyceum during the 2020 lockdown can be viewed on Youtube at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCPas0SJNQwJs_NW9fhYVtXQ

 

I count myself fortunate that music has been part of my life since early childhood. It has afforded me immense pleasure. It has also given me much else besides. Music has enlarged and strengthened and deepened my life. I have found a firmer ground for life’s uncertainties through music, and also a means of tolerating those uncertainties. I am sure I’m not the only one here who has looked to music for solace in these blighted days of the pandemic. As a young girl, it was only when sitting at the piano and playing a piece of music that I would know what I was feeling: music revealed my emotions to me. So, if I had selected the sweet Chopin A major prelude then all was well; ‘That Mystic Word of Thine’ from the Methodist hymnbook (an essential companion for this piano-playing Jew) and things were looking bleak; Mendelssohn’s Song without Words number 14, and I was hopeful that life would open up and become easier. The family would also learn how I was feeling – not always a welcome experience.

Music has also been a master of memory, vividly evoking times past. I hear certain songs, pop songs in particular from my youth, and I am transported back to an earlier time and place, or rather, that time and place is brought into the present. Music is such a present tense experience. I hear, for example, the Beatles track, ‘Lady Madonna’, and I am with a guy called Henry, a fabulous dancer and very good-looking, whose manner of eating was so disgusting it put me off my food – and eventually off him, the sort of guy that if life were all dance he would have been perfect. When memories have fallen into the great forgotten, it is music (and smell, too) that, so often, comes to their rescue.

And lastly, and most significantly, from the very beginning, music has opened my imagination. Music has plunged me into vast and glorious unknowns, out of which ideas and insight emerge, and ultimately characters and story. In a very real sense, music has helped make me a novelist.

While grateful for what music gives me, mostly, I have taken the power of music for granted. Just like one doesn’t question why the blood carries the oxygen to the cells, I haven’t much questioned why – or how – music has illuminated the loves, conflicts, happinesses and griefs of my life. Sure, I’ve read books about the power of music – Nietzsche, Adorno, Anthony Storr – but more out of an intellectual interest, rather than desiring to deconstruct the lived experience of music.

Recently this has changed. Largely connected with the novel I am currently writing, I am wanting to know how music works, works on a person. The novel, working title, ADRIAN’S AWAKENING, has as one of its main characters, Adrian Moore, a 43-year-old academic whose scholarly research focuses on death, specifically the social and cultural work of the dead. Adrian is not at all musical. One day, as he’s driving home to Melbourne from an international meeting in Adelaide, he stops at a coastal town, and while he eats a very ordinary toasted sandwich and refried potato chips he becomes aware of some background music. He is utterly captivated.

Adrian is changed by this experience: not that he knows this at the time. Only later when everything that is going to happen has happened, when he acknowledges that at forty-three years of age he has fallen in love for the first time, and a year or so later when he finds himself foundering in a profound and unexpected grief, only then when he knows he has changed, and changed utterly, does he locate the beginning at that coastal café halfway between Adelaide and Melbourne, and that piece of music.

He discovers that the music is Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde(The Song of the Earth), the final movement Der Abschied(the Farewell). What he then does, and does quite consciously is research Mahler – he is a researcher after all. So music, or at least Mahler does enter his life. But for all his researches, these do not bring about the change. The change seems to have happened at some not quite reachable part of himself, and it modifies his behaviour, opens him to experiences and understandings that, at 43 years of age, are new to him.

*****

I believe in the power of music, I have experienced the power of music. In creating this narrative for Adrian I have the opportunity to explore these mysteries of music. How do we understand music? Indeed, what does it means to understandmusic. Why does music affect us in the way it does? Why is music consoling for the bereaved, uplifting for the religious, soothing for the sick? The power of music is widely recognised. Many extreme religious sects actually ban music from the lives of their followers, fearing that exposure to music could release Dionysian – and fundamentally human – responses opposed to church teachings.

George Steiner, in underscoring the mysterious power of music, relates a story about Schumann. Schumann played a very difficult étude. When he was finished he was asked to explain the piece. Silently, he returned to the piano and played the étude again.

Are all my questions, then, moot? Is language lame when it comes to music, as Steiner suggests? Or is language simply irrelevant when it comes to music? Is music the best answer to music’s mysteries?

As a way of understanding a piece of music, critics and commentators often create a narrative. But is there a narrative, in the conventional sense of a story, to a piece of music, and does it help to understanding the music better? Certainly an apt title can shape one’s listening. So, for example, Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibitionor Mahler’s song cycle Kindertotenlieder(Songs on the Death of Children) or his Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen(I Have Become Lost to the World) one of the Rückert Lieder predispose a particular narrative, and shape a particular listening. Though the lattermost case, I Have Become Lost to the World, poses a warning in adhering too closely to a title. There’s an ambiguity here: does the title mean I’m in a state of existential misery, or does it mean I am lost in the world of music and work? And does the music resolve the ambiguity? Given the relatively happy circumstances of Mahler’s life at the time (4thSymphony completed, engaged to Alma, career looking up), I would suggest the latter interpretation, but others have not.

It was Liszt who invented the term symphonic poem (or tone poem), in which musical themes and transformations trek a narrative. He wrote a series of 13 orchestral works that he called Symphonic Poems (12 written between 1848-58 and the last in 1882).  These were ‘compositions written to illustrate an extra-musical plan derived from a play, poem, painting or work of nature.’ These single movement works were intended to evoke scenes, thoughts, imaginings in the listener: evokenot representactual scenes. A preface accompanies each of the tone poems. Again these are evocative and abstract, but still, I think they shape one’s listening.

Liszt’s symphonic poems inspired many later works. One of the more well-known is Strauss’s ‘An Alpine Symphony’. This piece in 22 short connecting parts follows a climb up a mountain at night, reaching the summit at dawn, and then the descent. I can easily follow this narrative through the music. But if I didn’t know the narrative, I would have a different experience, and a different understanding of the music. Nothing to do with mountain climbing, not for this listener, but a more personal awakening, something tied far more closely to my own past history, my present longings, my future hopes. Something individual to me.

I decided to explore further this notion of narrative in music. Does a narrative extend the music? Does a narrative extend the listening experience? Does a narrative actually connect music with meaning – verbal meaning?

I listened to several short pieces of music that were either new to me or I did not know well. Some had voice, others had solo piano or cello, all had orchestral accompaniments. I listened deliberately and consciously with narrative in mind, which is to say I listened verballyand semanticallyto the music. (In no case did I consult the text of songs, nor did I use any titles to guide me.) The stories came easily: one piece conjured an ocean, rough seas tossing a boat about and when all seemed to be lost, the music calmed and so did the seas, and the boat made it to shore. In another piece with a contralto soloist, I imagined a love affair, unbalanced, unfair, which eventually finishes in a sad departure. A third was shaped around the Kindertransport of 1938-9, the story of a little girl separated from her parent and being sent alone to a strange country; that terrifying train journey. I constructed each narrative as the music played. It was not difficult.

The interesting thing was, when I listened to the music in this deliberate semantic, verbal narrative way, I did not HEAR the music. Narrative did not help either the music, or my experience of it.

So, I am thinking that to hear music, one has to listen musically? Again that Schumann story: to understand music one has to listen or play it over and over again – not talk about it, or write about it.

I believe in the power of words, but is music where language fails?

****

Why does all this matter? Why not take the power of music on faith? After all, plenty of people do this with other forms of the numinous, so why not with music? (And I do regard music, its existence and essence, as awe-inspiring, intangible and yes, numinous.) I suspect this is exactly what does happen: that many people, perhaps most who are affected by music, accept this without question, accept it on faith.

Back when I was young, a scientist named Professor Julius Sumner Miller had a TV show called ‘Why Is It So?’ In this show he would question the everyday world, the world we all tend to take for granted. Why does it rain? Why does water go round the plug hole and not straight down. Why do insects not fall off vertical walls? Where does the water and waste go when you flush the toilet? I loved this show, it explained so many of the conundrums that worried my days and nights. I wanted to know everything about how the world worked, including those things no one talked about – or taught in school. Maybe my desire to understand what makes music work, is a latter-day expression of my juvenile curiosity.

I’m not interested in the neurophysiological processes that occur when listening to music, such as the brain patterns and the release of endorphins: these neurophysiological explanations don’t gel with the experienceof music. And I’m not interested in technical explanations of tonic fourths and fifths, and the relief of certain chord resolutions; again, such explanations don’t connect with the experienceof listening to music. Most people, including those with little knowledge of music, would hear Strauss’s ‘Four Last Songs’, or the Adagietto in Mahler’s 5th(well known from Visconti’s film, Death in Venice) or Bruch’s ravishing cello in Kol Nidrei, or the Hymn from Philip Glass’s Akhenaten, and hear these as beautiful. And not just classical music: many would hear beauty in Tim Buckley’s ‘Song to the Siren’ or K.D. Lang’s version of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’. And I expect most people would respond to the energy and power of Hendrix’s ‘Purple Haze’ and Stravinsky’s ‘Firebird’. The question that interests me is why: why would so many people with different knowledge and experiences, different life circumstances, different hopes and longings share a similar response to certain pieces of music?

Although, of course, I’m revealing my Western bias: most people would notfind the music of Strauss and Mahler and Leonard Cohen beautiful. I once sat through a Chinese opera, a very long opera. The concert ticket had been a gift, and the giver was sitting next to me. I was desperate to leave, but I couldn’t. The music grated, I was not attuned to it in any sense, I felt an almost physical aversion.

I wasn’t raised listening to the didgeridoo, but I’ve learned how to listen to it. I love its earthiness and eeriness; its music throbs and flows with the body’s beat. But I’ll never warm to the Indonesian gamelan. There’s a cultural component here, combined with exposure and familiarity – although the lack of familiarity does not mean lack of exposure. There are many people here in Australia who would say they do not listen to classical music – ever. BUT classical music is everywhere: in lifts, in shopping centres and of course in the movies. To mention just a few: Silence of the Lambs(Goldberg Variations); Oceans Eleven(Claire de Lune); the incomparable Callas singing La Mamma Mortain Philadelphia. Music forms the backdrop to many advertisements. No one who was alive in Australia, back in the days when cigarette smoking was ubiquitous, would have forgotten the swell of Tchaikovsky (Symphony 5, just a few bars in the 2ndmovement) as Paul Hogan encouraged all and sundry to have a Winfield. The fabric of our contemporary life is steeped in classical music.

Of course if art is the best, and perhaps only means of understanding art, as Schumann and others would have it, then there will be not explanation of the type I am wanting. But I’m not prepared to jettison language when it comes to music. I have far too great a faith in language to do so, and most particularly, that aspect of language that goes beyond the one-to-one correspondance between word and meaning, sign and signifier: namely metaphor.

Language is a symbolic system, the symbolic system par excellence. As Magritte so pithily showed in his painting of a pipe: Ceci n’est pas une pipe. (Magritte is being doubly symbolic: the pipe in the picture is not a real pipe, and the word ’pipe’ in the sentence is not a pipe either.) In this sense, language itself can be regarded as a metaphor for being-in-the-world, for the world itself, for time and space, for all that has existed and will exist. Language breaks the concrete boundaries of existence, of the here and now.

Metaphor itself, in the linguistic sense of the term, I consider to be the musical arm of language. In metaphor, words are used in original and creative and often unique combinations, evoking meanings and experiences that go beyond the dictionary meaning of individual words. Metaphor crosses the boundaries of the actual into the imagined, in order to illuminate the actual. Consider the following metaphors:

‘The ripe teenage mulch of his bedroom.’ Ian McEwan Saturday(p.30)

From the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai (Open Closed Open)
‘I still have inside me the mad search for emergency exits.’ (p. 6)
‘The soul inside me is the last foreign language I’m learning’ (p.33)
‘Enchanted places are the opiates of my life’ (p.69)

From Sebastian Barry, The Secret Scripture
‘We have neglected the tiny sentences of our life.’  (p.70)
‘There was a cold cheap cankered-looking moon’ (p.72)

And from Dorothy Porter, the poem ‘My At-Last Lover’ (Crete, 1996)

Your face sleeps
illuminated
in the early morning
warmth
of my slack arm

you’re my at-last sound asleep
child
you’re my cat
with a dreaming paw
flexing in my hand
you’re my raw storm
gorgeously spent

and what am I, darling?

Exhausted

and full of trapped bubbles
like honeycomb.

Metaphor is suggestive and evocative, in the same way that music is suggestive and evocative. Metaphor has a mysterious illuminating effect, as does music. The power of a metaphor is expanded by its very abstraction, just like music. There’s an intangible but pungent emotionality to metaphor, just like music.

It makes sense to call metaphor the musical arm of language.

There are times in life when language is lame and music fills the breach, that is, music makes sense of an experience when language has backed off. But it does so in a sort of surreptitious, back-door way. You’re feeling bleak, confused, something is plaguing you, but it’s out of reach. You slump on the couch, you long for blackout, you put in earplugs, open your music library, select a piece of music (although probably could not explain your selection), hit play. And forty-five minutes later, your head is clear, your spirit is lighter, the way forward is less murky and forbidding: you are changed.

It is commonplace to refer to the intangible aspects of music – and yet odd, given that music is so PRESENT. People have  written of the metaphysical dimension of music. I would suggest that music functions as a metaphor to our more grounded experience. Like all metaphors, music strikes deep and on target, it’s evanescent and organic, more original and creative than other explanations, other revelations. And so a person can be changed, changed utterly by a symphony.

Music as metaphor to lived experience; that through music, intangible and imponderable as it is, we know and understand more broadly and intensely this great messy experience of life.

 

THE PLAYLIST I COMPILED FOR THIS TALK

WHEN THE VALUE OF LIFE IS LESS THAN THE VALUE OF A DOLLAR

A reading of Russian history from the 19thcentury to the Revolution and on through the Soviet years (and, some might add, right up to the present day), reveals an enduring feature: human life has been treated as a disposable commodity by a succession of Russian leaders. Under the Czars, peasants died from famine and poverty; Jews died from unpoliced and often state-sanctioned pogroms; enemies of the regime were slain, and disloyal functionaries failed to wake up for breakfast. Under Stalin, the induced famine in Ukraine killed more than seven million people; in the great terror of the late 1930s millions of Russians were murdered; state orphanages were filled with children saddled with ‘tainted biographies’ following the ‘disappearance’ of their parents; friends to Stalin in the evening were pronounced enemies over night and killed by lunchtime the next day; cavalier neglect of the people killed millions during the Great Patriotic War; the siege of Leningrad alone, when next to no help was given to the city by the regime, saw two million deaths over those perilous 900 days; throughout the Soviet years, artists and scientists were sent into exile to wither and die in the wilds of Siberia, while others were left to rot in mental asylums. For decades, the Soviet leadership murdered any opposition, whether real or fabricated.

Reading Russian history, one could be forgiven for thinking that human life counts for nothing when there’s a cause at stake: to win a war, or, for several decades to shore up the power of a despotic leader. The same could be said for China and the huge number of lives lost in Mao’s, euphemistically titled, Great Leap Forward. In a mere five years, more Chinese people died than did Soviet citizens in the entire thirty years of Stalin’s rule.

I have been reminded of this each day when I read the world-wide incidence of covid-19, together with the number of deaths and recoveries for each country. Even before the statistics from the US soared to reach the top of this distressing chart, I noted how the percentage of recovered patients to incidence was worse for the US than practically any other country, indicating what a parlous state that country’s health system was in, and how all, except the wealthy, were affected by this. This was in March, at the beginning of the pandemic. I thought at the time that the situation in the US could become quite serious, although certainly not as bad as Italy, after all the US was a wealthy country. But I had not factored in Trump or his administration, or a Congress dominated by Republicans, nearly all of whom have relinquished all moral principles to follow a leader who makes no bones of having relinquished his moral principles long ago – if ever he had them.

It would seem that some people, nearly always men, will do anything to build their power, and that other people, handsomely served by the prevailing hegemony, will do anything to maintain it.

The chart below shows relative statistics on May 14, 2020.

COUNTRY               CONFIRMED CASES     DEATHS                   RECOVERED

AUSTRALIA                  702298                        98                          6301 (89.7%)

US                              1,390,406                    84,119                     243,430 (17.5%)

RUSSIA                          242,271                     2212                      48,003 (19.8%)

UNITED KINGDOM     230,985                   33,264                         1032 (??)

SPAIN                            228,691                   27,104                      140,823 (61.6%)

ITALY                            222,104                    31,106                       112,541 (50.7%)

GERMANY                   174,098                     7861                           148,700 (85.4%)

IRAN                            112,725                      6783                             89,428 (79.3%)

CHINA                          84,024                       4637                             79,246 (94.3%)

INDIA                          78,055                        2551                             26,400 (33.8%)

CANADA                     73,568                       5425                              35,177 (47.8%)

MEXICO                     40,186                         4220                             26,990 (67.2%)

ECUADOR                 30,486                         2334                               3433 (11.3%)

 

It’s easy to lie with statistics, this is commonplace knowledge. And enough is known about countries like China, Russia and Iran to treat their official figures with suspicion. There are, however, issues specific to the coronavirus figures.

  1. 1. It is commonly accepted that the number of confirmed cases is far less than actual cases. There are a number of reasons for this, first and foremost being the low level of testing in many places. But there are also particular features of covid-19, that reduce the numbers, specifically, an incubation period of at least fourteen days; and there are some infected people who will remain asymptomatic at all times. The gap between confirmed cases and actual cases should decrease with wide scale, reliable* testing.
  2. Re deaths and recoveries: neither can be determined until each known case is resolved. This also afects the numbers.
  3. In some countries, for example the UK, deaths in care homes have not been taken into account until very recently. A comparison of UK care home deaths this March-April compared with previous years, suggests a significant number of unaccounted cases of covid-19.
  4. With the best will in the world, it’s extremely difficult to arrive at accurate figures from poorer countries like India and Ecuador.

So, the actual figures are assumed to be much higher than the official numbers. But even on the lower, under-reported figures, the situation in the US is truly shocking. The US is purported to be the richest country in the world, the most advancedcountry in the world. And yet the incidence of covid-19, the number of deaths, and the appallingly low percentage of recoveries shows that the administration has failed its citizens to an astonishing degree.

Trump’s boast that there’s been more testing in the US than anywhere else is a blatant lie. Back in Mid-March according to one Washington DC report, the level of testing in the US per capita was the lowest in the world. The numbers gradually increased – many governors pleaded with the federal government for testing kits and protective gear to no avail – and according to a report in the New Yorker published May 14th, reached an average of 265,000 people per day by the first week in May. While this is nowmore tests than any other country, per capita the US still lags far behind. And given that intensive testing started so late, the country will probably trail behind in per capita testing for some to come.

The president has consistently downplayed the pandemic. Remember when he planned to have the country re-opened by Easter? One of the most extraordinary outcomes of his deceitful optimism is that during those daily two-hour press conferences in April, aka re-election rallies, he hardly mentioned the thousands of deaths, rarely acknowledged the pain and loss so many people were suffering. He treated these sessions as re-election opportunities, keen to tell everyone what a wonderful job he was doing, that hismedical expertise was better than his top medical advisers (after all, who came up with the idea of ingesting disinfectant?), that he could be trusted to manage the health crisis and the economy, and deal with China and the WHO at the same time. Trump seemed to fancy himself as a cross between Christ and Churchill. As I observed him at these daily briefings, I was reminded more of Richard III crossed with Madame Defarge.

It doesn’t matter how many deaths occur, Trump has work to do: specifically, to shore up his election prospects. His every press briefing, his every tweet is in service to staying in power. This is a man convinced he knows everything and can do anything (even delay the presidential elections in November). His intuition is infallible, and much more effective than everyone else’s reason and expertise. And should there be a mistake, he’ll blame it on China, or a formerly trusted member of his team – although there is no team. If you do not do the will of the master, then you’re out. Dr Fauci who has done a remarkable tight-walking act, will, I predict be out of a job before too long.

Trump, like Stalin before him, holds no responsibility towards his nation’s people. These people are nothing more than a means to an end, and, as such, they are dispensable – at least a percentage of them are. The death toll from coronavirus in the US will be well over 100,000. It could rise to over 200,000. Trump is good at numbers. He knows he can lie his way through 200,000 deaths and still have sufficient voters to re-elect him. To him, 200,000 deaths is not even a small price to pay, it’s no price at all, because he doesn’t care about these citizens, indeed, he’d probably dismiss them as collateral damage.** There’s only one deal and that’s to keep him in the White House, and keep him untouchable.

Stalin was the same.

To win in November, Trump believes the country needs to get back to work. 200,000 deaths touch maybe a million people. But unemployment in excess of 20% touches millions more, and not acceptable to the self-proclaimed best economic manager the US has ever known. Covid-19 started out as a nuisance for Trump, then it got in the way of his plans. If it costs lives to reclaim his agenda, so be it. Only one person matters, and not simply in America, but throughout the world, and that is President Trump of the United States of America. Much the same observation has been made of Stalin and the failed state of the USSR.

__________________________________________________________

*An astonishing number of test kits have been shown to be unreliable.

** Beware all euphemisms. Their function is to cloak the truth in something more pallatable. ‘Collateral damage’ sounds so much more acceptable than ‘people – men, women and children were killed by our actions’. ‘Great Leap Forward’ and ‘Five Year Plan’ hide the millions of people who died as the Soviet Union and China modernised.

PANDEMIC PASTIMES

 

My favourite letter is /p/. It’s not the sound – a voiceless plosive has little to recommend it over

A page of /p/ in personal dictionary.

the musical nasal of an /m/, or the remarkable laterals of /r/ and /l/ – it’s that the most interesting words start with /p/, more than any other letter. I’ve not arrived at this conclusion through research or experimentation, rather it is a matter of experience, backed up by the personal dictionary that I have compiled over many decades. /p/ fills more pages and sparks more interest than any other letter.

In these strange times of the corona virus pandemic, the peccadilloes and proclivities that have sustained me are poetry and prose, paintings and politics. And music, of course, the piano and preludes, but much more than these.

This post is not about my favourite letter, indeed, only in unique times such as these, would I indulge my fondness for /p/; nor is this post my usual sort of article. Rather I want to let you know about a new pandemic pastime of mine.

********

In 1912, in the city of Melbourne, a group of women established a club for women. They called it The Lyceum Club after the London Lyceum which had been formed eight years earlier. Both then and now ‘the Club is for women interested in the arts, the professions, science, contemporary issues and the pursuit of lifelong learning in an apolitical, non-sectarian environment.’ I’d not heard of this club until a few months ago, when I was invited to be the Lyceum’s 2020 artist-in-residence.

I accepted the invitation and, in conjunction with several of the Lyceum Circles* (clubs), I planned a program of lectures and interviews and forums.

Then came the lockdown.

The Lyceum Club events quickly shifted on-line, including a Youtube channel so the artist-in-residence program could go ahead. The first lecture, ‘Imagination and Creativity in the Digital Age’, is currently available. In mid-May, a second talk will be recorded on ‘Truth in Fiction’.

Flaubert said: ‘Emma Bovary, c’est moi.’ But can we trust him? Should we trust him? And if it were true, does it enhance our reading of Emma Bovary? These issues will be explored with reference to a range of writers. The talk will include a consideration of cultural appropriation and faked biography through the cases of Helen Demidenko, Heather Morris and Bruce Pascoe.

A third talk on memoir will appear on the Youtube channel in June.

These past several weeks I have been reading a lot of poetry. Poetry, with its intensity and concision, is perfect for these times. It provides illumination and insight, it provides distraction from immediate anxieties, and it does all this in a few lines. It suddenly occurred to me: have-channel-record-poetry. So I have. Short readings of favourite poems are also there on the Youtube channel.

The Youtube channel is available to anyone interested. So, if you are wanting a poetry fix, or you’re interested in the lectures here’s the link:

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCPas0SJNQwJs_NW9fhYVtXQ

And for more poetry the Australian Book Review has made a podcast of Poetry in Troubled Times.

https://www.australianbookreview.com.au/podcast/760-the-abr-podcast/6472-the-abr-podcast-more-poetry-for-troubled-times-13

When this is over, I will resume my articles on this website, but until then I’ll be writing and recording for Youtube. But please do come along for the duration.

 

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*There are dozens of these circles including the Latin Circle, the Psychology Circle, 15+ reading circles, Italian and Greek Circles, gardening and chess, film and finance – a remarkable range.

 

Surviving the Pandemic

I am reading Colum McCann’s latest novel, Apeirogon. An apeirogon is a shape with an infinite number of COUNTABLE sides – I delight in this notion. The book is brilliant. Mesmerising, with an incantatory effect in parts, it is long, structured in sections, some only comprising a single sentence. The story (though there really is not a story per se) is shaped around real events: a friendship between a Palestinian man and an Israeli man, both of whom have lost their daughters in the on-going conflict; these are ordinary men, yet extraordinary in what they do, how they understand. The book is about everything: the habits of birds, biblical characters, partition, the holocaust, the Irish troubles, tight-rope walking, every section providing another layer or another SIDE to the apeirogon. Detail by detail, story by story, the book builds a picture of…of the world really. There’s no plot, not in any traditional sense, but the book is unputdownable. It is, truly, an awesome achievement. When I first saw the title, I scoffed: how could any author be so foolish to provide a title that is meaningless to the vast majority of people. But Apeirogonis exactly right: this book is an apeirogon, the world we inhabit is an apeirogon.

While I am reading, the world beyond the book is silent, held suspended, does not impinge. While I am reading, I do not reach for my phone, I do not even think of my phone, nor my iPad, nor my computer. While I am reading, I do not think of the coronavirus. I am fully engaged in the world of the novel. And my mind is working, working hard. As the world of the novel expands layer by layer, panel by panel, I am making connections, imaginative connections; as I read, my own world grows larger and my understandings deepen.

When the world appears to be hostile and/or when you have lost your place in it, when your anxieties have fully occupied you, squeezing out both rationality and humour, fiction provides easy and readily available respite. Indeed, for my entire life, when things have gone awry, I have reached for fiction, most particularly the novels of Jane Austen – dear Jane – but many others as well. And for a time, with the novel in my hands, my dog’s head resting on my thigh, I am transported into other lives, other places, other times, other minds.

No matter how long this pandemic lasts, the fiction will not run out. Go to your book-cases and take down those classics you’ve always intended to read again. Go to the website of your local bookshops, they all have on-line ordering and delivery services. And your library has a wealth of books; best of all, if you’re set up for e-delivery, you won’t need to leave the couch. We are all going to be spending more time alone and with our immediate family. And this is where fiction is so versatile. You can read aloud with your beloved; you can read to your parents; you can read to your children, and you can read quietly, in peace, for an hour by yourself, while the world outside stumbles along.

 

 

GEORGE STEINER

George Steiner died early last week (February 3rd). He was 90. Many tributes have been written, old interviews have been replayed*, a so-called ‘posthumous interview’** has been published. Several of the tributes include a sting-in-the-tale comment, as if the author can’t help himself (all the articles I’ve read so far have been written by men) about how Steiner inspired controversy with his strongly-held views about the primacy of the primary text, the shortcomings (parasitism) of the critic, diminished standards in the contemporary academy, to name just three. What others call elitism, was Steiner’s life of the mind. George Steiner was a fearless intellectual, he was not going to write to please an audience. (Again and again I am struck by how elitism in an intellectual is condemned, yet lauded in an athlete.)

While I mourn Steiner’s passing, far more intense is my gratitude that he existed at all. Through many decades, Steiner generously opened his mind to readers, sharing his extraordinary erudition in books that can be read over and over again. On hearing of his death, I immediately started rereading one of my favourites, Real Presences. There are notes from past readings, and I am adding different notes now, Steiner always gives me more.

Soon after Real Presenceswas published in 1989, I attended a lecture given by George Steiner. In my memory, it was held at a lecture theatre at the Tate (the old one at Millbank – Tate Modern didn’t exist). It seems an odd place for a Steiner lecture, and I wonder now if I’ve made it up. But I see the lecture theatre – it held about 200 people – the seating rising in long rows, and I am sitting about halfway up and a little to the right. I feel as if I’m there alone, listening to Steiner alone, but my copy of Real Presencesis a signed gift from my dear London-based friend, Frances, so I expect she was there, together with J, who first introduced me to Steiner several years earlier. But I don’t sense their presence. Steiner is standing at a lectern. I assume he has notes, but he doesn’t consult them. He talks without pause for an hour, and I am held, held utterly, in that lovely distinctive lilt, the creative language, the lush eloquence, the astonishing ideas.

In lectures, in interviews, and in his books, Steiner commands my entire attention. He makes me think, he introduces me to writers I’ve not read (Alberto Manguel, very much alive and as productive as ever does the same). I don’t always agree with Steiner, but I am always nourished. And invigorated.

A couple of years ago (August 2017) I wrote about Steiner in a piece posted here called ‘Pardoning your Heroes’. I reprint it here in acknowledgement of the great debt I owe him.

 

* This is a wonderful interview from 1994 with Elaine Wachtel of CBC’s Writers and Company, replayed following Steiner’s death. Go to the Writers and Company website, it is the program of 9/2/20.

**https://www.fr24news.com/2020/02/posthumous-interview-with-george-steiner-i-did-not-have-the-courage-to-create-culture.html

 

PARDONING YOUR HEROES (originally posted August 2017)

 

In human behaviour there are unforgiveable acts and unforgiveable qualities. Lying, cheating, brutality and torture, betrayal and treachery occur in a staggering variety, while superficiality, laziness and self-obsession are distressingly common. But unforgiveable acts and qualities do not necessarily lead to a permanent rupture between people (or communities, or countries) – nor should they. In my last three novels there are several instances of unforgiveable acts: between parents and children in The Prosperous Thief, between friends in Reunion, and between married couples in The Memory Trap. In nearly all these instances the relationship endures.

I am reading A Long Saturday(University of Chicago Press, 2017), a slender book of conversations between the literary scholar and critic, George Steiner, and the French journalist, Laure Adler. (‘Conversations’ is the term used on the cover of the book; more accurately, Adler interviews Steiner, and she does so with familiar ease and admirable perspicacity.) George Steiner has been a lifelong companion for me, an enduring love. From the time I first read his Language and Silenceas a twenty-year-old, through his many essays and monographs, right up to this week when I have been reading his conversations with Laure Adler, this man has afforded me pleasure, stimulation, understandings, excitement, inspiration, questions. Steiner feeds and awakens my curiosity. No long-term partner could be so consistently rewarding.

I was happily immersed in this latest book, acknowledging familiar Steinerisms, delighting in new offerings when I came to a section where, in a single page (p.48), Steiner is rudely dismissive of Simone Weil, Hannah Arendt and Simone de Beauvoir. Three women scholars discarded in a handful of lines. In recent years Steiner has been far more mindful of women, acknowledging among other things, their historical lack of opportunity in intellectual life. But no male writer in A Long Saturdaywarrants such curt dismissal as Steiner gives these women.

It would seem that Steiner remains a man of his generation (he was born in 1929), whose own heroes are exclusively men. I find myself wondering if his recent inclusiveness of women is nothing more than lip-service, something he knows he must be seen to be doing. So, for example, he is critical in this book of the former Oxbridge tradition of seating men and women separately, but nonetheless, he joined in the practice for decades. He’s a scholar who has argued persuasively both in the present volume and elsewhere about the importance of polyglottism, of reading (knowing) the greats in their original language. Yet this man who confesses to being unable to read Russian (p. 40) cites Akhmatova and Tsvetaeva as women ‘to admire’. These are the only women who receive his praise in this volume, but given he can’t read them in the original it is questionable praise, even demeaning praise; he seems to suggest that their work does not warrant a reading in their original language. It leeches both the poets and the critic of dignity.

He dismisses Hannah Arendt as follows: ‘I was unfortunate enough to meet Hannah Arendt. Very little of her work is first-rate, in my opinion. A woman who writes a huge volume on the origins of totalitarianism and doesn’t say a word about Stalin because her husband was a true Stalinist-Communist? No thank you.’

Hannah Arendt, like Steiner, is one of my intellectual heroes. But rather than leaping to her defence, I am wanting to silence Steiner, to stopper these appalling statements that condemn him far more than they do her. So he doesn’t like Arendt as a person, but you don’t have to like your heroes. (Not that I’m suggesting Arendt could ever be one of Steiner’s heroes!) The fact is you get the best of a writer in her/his works, those works over which s/he has pored and thought and considered and redrafted. Conversation, on the other hand, while drawing on years of scholarship, nonetheless is marked by spontaneity; there’s no second or third or tenth draft to refine the argument and smooth the syntax. I’ve always been happy enough notto meet my heroes. So it is of no import that Steiner did not like Arendt, but as for his next complaint and the sole example he provides as to why he dismisses her work, this I do not understand. The third part of Arendt’s work on Totalitarianism is devoted to National Socialism under Hitler and Bolshevism under Stalin. Far from Arendt ignoring Stalin, Stalin, along with Hitler, is the major focus of this third part of her study.

When Steiner turns his attention to Weil, again he begins with a personal aside. ‘General de Gaulle said, “She’s mad!” Which is an opinion difficult to refute.’ Like his throwaway comment about meeting Arendt, this quip does no-one any favours. Steiner continues: ‘She [Weil] writes some very fine things, but very little.’ This comes across as insulting, underscored by his use of the term ‘things’ to refer to her work. He continues: ‘…allow me some blind prejudices. A woman who refuses to enter a Catholic church, saying she is too Jewish, at the time of Auschwitz? No thank you. It’s inexcusable! If there is a last judgment, that woman is in a lot of trouble.’

Yes, I expect this isthe voice of ‘blind prejudice’, a stance Steiner would be quick to criticise in others. But as well, it is a statement that lacks Steiner’s usual clarity; indeed, I remain unsure what he means.

All he deigns to say about Simone de Beauvoir is, ‘She was a great woman. She was very lucky to live with Sartre! Very Lucky! That was a truly intelligent choice.’ That is, her greatness lies in her choice of Sartre. This is so sarcastic and so utterly contemptible, I read it three times to make sure I’d not misunderstood.

Steiner’s swipe at de Beauvoir suggests that Sartre is a writer he does admires. And this is, in fact, the case. Later in the book Steiner criticises Sartre for his blind support of the Soviet regime, but unlike Arendt, de Beauvoir and Weil, Sartre’s political views do not contaminate Steiner’s appreciation of the work.

Sartre was a good philosopher, perhaps even a great one, but as a novelist he was ordinary. I read all his novels in my twenties, but they resist a second reading. Sartre was not a good novelist; the philosophy paralyses the fiction, there are long static sections, the temperature and tone remain caught in an existential trough. This notwithstanding, while Steiner disposes of de Beauvoir (both person and work) in a flippant sentence, Sartre’s work, it seems, is beyond reproach.

This is the crucial fact about heroes. They may let us down, they may betray our belief in them, yet nonetheless we keep them in our personal pantheon. As I am doing with Steiner. I’m not tempted to throw him over, rather I wish he hadn’t made his appalling comments.

We pardon our heroes their failings because of what they dogive us. It is like the beloved partner who strays and then wants to return. You don’t need to forgive her or him, all you need to do is work out whether your life is enriched by their presence, whether youare enriched by their presence. Their act was unforgiveable, unpardonable, but in the end you take them back: you want them like you want your intellectual heroes, right there in the centre of your life.

One of my heroes has disappointed me, let me down, betrayed my faith in him. This intellectual lover has done me wrong (one feels it so personally). But I know I won’t do to Steiner as he has done to Arendt, Weil and de Beauvoir, I know that the occasional lapse, and yes there have been a few over the years, is insufficient for me to end this affair. Steiner can be pompous, he can be unnecessarily obscure, his sentences can become clotted, and at times his male Weltanschauungclouds his judgment, but my life is richer for George Steiner: he’s earned his place in my pantheon. Yet as I continue through the book and come across a few more personal comments I wish had been edited out, I find myself wondering about intellectual heroes. After all, it is the work that matters, so why have intellectual heroes at all?

The answer lies, I believe, in the intimacy of reading, the unparalleled intimacyof reading. These heroes creep up on you. Hour after hour there’s just you and the author in a connection that proceeds at your pace, that draws on all that is in your mind, spurred on by all that is in the author’s work. Over the course of my adult life I have spent days and weeks at a time with Steiner. I have witnessed the reoccurrence of certain themes, certain books, certain authors, certain composers and I feel I know something of the man. If asked, I would say that I have spent the day or week with George Steiner, I rarely say I have spent the time with, say, No Passion Spentor Real Presences. I have attended a Steiner lecture, I have listened to recordings, I know his voice. Sometimes when reading a difficult passage in one of his books I hear hisvoice in the process of mydeciphering his meaning.

People will say they are a devotee of Henry James, or an ardent follower of Jane Austen – or Virginia Woolf or Proust or, indeed, George Steiner. When it comes to literary and scholarly loves, when it comes tocreativeloves (whether writers, artists, composers), it is the person we tend to cite not the work, it is the person we bond with. ‘I’ve been reading the new George Steiner,’ I will say. For this reader, the man and his work are inseparable. And if now and then the man steps up centre stage and makes an unforgiveable aside, the work saves him as it has often saved me.

As for this latest volume, it now carries my underlinings and marginalia. Pencilled in are agreements and arguments, ideas to ponder and others to follow up. In short, for all my quibbles, A Long Saturday, is an provocative and satisfying book. Steiner’s words have inspired, Steinerhas inspired. This is what heroes do.

INSTEAD OF A MEMOIR

I’m at the age when people write memoirs.

I have plenty of memorable events to account: I never got the hang of childhood, so childhood itself was made strange; I have a hyphenated identity as a Jewish Australian; I have loved men and I’ve loved women; as a novelist I have a public life, and in that life I meet interesting people, many of whom I count as friends; my partner, Dorothy Porter, was one of Australia’s best-known poets. There is much to fill a memoir, yet I have never been tempted – and that remains the case.

Three recent events have brought me to a new consideration. I am currently reading Irving Yalom’s Staring at the Sun(2008). In this book Yalom, an American psychiatrist now in his late eighties, explores the commonly held fear of death – not a fear I share, incidentally. Irving Yalom is my favourite psychiatrist. He is a humanist, an intellectual, a man of profound erudition and empathy (how rare and wonderful to link those two qualities), a writer of rich and elegant prose. The first half of Staring at the Sunis written in his usual style, in which he draws on his work with patients to explore and understand an essential aspect of the human condition, in this case the extent and variety of death fears; he shows how these fears emerge in therapy and how they are resolved. Along the way he draws on writers and thinkers including Tolstoy, Epicurus and Nietzsche.

The second half of the book, which I have only just begun, documents his own personal story. My reaction was immediate: why a specific section on you, when you emerge as actor and thinker and compassionate therapist in all the stories you tell of your patients? In short, why a memoir when I have a strong sense of Yalom through his books.

The second event was the funeral of the renowned French horn player, Barry Tuckwell. There were wonderful speeches, warm and humorous and revealing of Barry’s life. And there was music, lots of music, including recordings of Barry himself. In ways I can’t explain (but hope to do so in my next novel), Barry’s music revealed more of the man, or rather, had a more profound effect on me than the stories told of his life.

The third event was the follow-up to a dinner with a relatively new friend. We were talking about our adolescent reading, the authors we read and the effect they had. He seemed surprised at mine: all of Leon Uris, Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, Somerset Maugham, and many many Iris Murdochs. I explained that I stopped reading books specifically written for children at quite a young age (of course back then, children read the likes of Dickens and Austen and the Brontës). I read the classics, but I also read the contemporary novels I found on my mother’s bookshelf. I explained how I would choose a book and then ask my mother whether she would recommend it; I added that some of these books had got me – a good girl – into trouble at school. I told my friend that I’d written about this, and said I’d send some pieces along to him. (I sent him ‘Conversing with Famous Dead People’, posted under ‘imagination’, and the lecture I gave to the National Library of Australia, ‘Private Pleasures and Public Exposure: the Creative Imagination in the Digital Age’, posted under published essays.)

This morning I scrolled through the articles on this website, and it occurred to me as I saw pieces about travel, about books read, about ideas; and articles about biography, about letters, about starting a novel, that writings like these reveal a huge amount about me, more and of greater variety than any memoir – just like Yalom. A memoir is selective, the writer tells only what they want. They have a specific purpose in writing the memoir and the content is selected with that purpose in mind. These articles however, are propelled by curiosity, and by a belief in the power of language and most particularly written language to reveal, to communicate, to connect.

I do delight in the way new ideas appear and develop. Three separate events occurred, and they percolated together and linked in with memory and goodness knows what other richnesses of mind, and suddenly there’s a new insight, a new idea.

A thought is now emerging: that I will select a number of these pieces, along with some of my long essays and collect them together under the title: Instead of a Memoir. Just a thought at the moment, but if it gathers traction I might very well act on it.

Hectic Reading. Starting all over again (3)

HECTIC READING. STARTING ALL OVER AGAIN (3)

It’s happening again: I’m reading hectically. I’m filling up. Little in the way of rhyme or reason at this stage, just following the imagination’s peccadilloes. I finish a book and within minutes I’m reaching for a new one. Every few days I stop long enough to write notes, prompted by my jottings in the back of each book and the wanderings of a mind set free. The jottings and the notes sometimes bear no relation to anything that has gone before, but more often they feed the new novel that is slowing forming, or, not so much the novel as a whole, but the characters who will carry the story.

Here are the current volumes.

  1. Deborah Levy. The Man Who Saw Everything. I’m reading this book because of Ann Patchett’s new novel, The Dutch House. I went to Readings Bookstore in Carlton to buy the Patchett, and there, in the new releases was Deborah Levy’s new one, a novel that traverses the 1980s to the present day, character-based and ideas-driven, and written in Levy’s lucid rich prose. I am 1/3 the way through and Levy’s characters are provoking some surprising thoughts about my own very different characters. (Incidentally, Patchett has returned to form with The Dutch House. Such a subtle, yet intricate portrayal of family relations.)

  1. David Biale. Gershom Scholem. Master of the Kabbalah. Mention of this book was made in a recent article in the NYRB. It occurred to me that while Scholem’s name was very familiar to me, I knew nothing about him, nor the Kabbalah. Biale’s book is part of the excellent Yale Jewish Lives Series – a recommendation in itself.

Jewishness in any of its manifestations is not a theme in my new novel, but suddenly it seemed essential, and urgent, too, that I learn about Scholem. I read the book over two days. Scholem was a great scholar and there are some wonderful quotes in Biale’s book about the power of writing, of language, of story. One quote from Goethe’s Faust particularly struck: ‘Parchment – is that the secret fount/ from which you drink, to still your thirst forever?’ And from Scholem himself: ‘the desiccation of the language has dried out our hearts.’

One of the characters in my new novel, Adrian, is grappling with the problems of meaning, and, in particular, the nature of meaning without language. I put my books aside and listen to Mahler’s ‘Das Lied von der Erde’, a piece of music that has a profound effect on Adrian early on in the new novel, an effect that, wordman as he is, he simply does not understand. I let the music lift me out of the quotidian into the imagination’s swirl. The music plays, the voice lures, and I travel without will, without any monitoring whatsoever, through memory, musings, ideas, images that are not in the least essayist, but more like a Kandinsky painting.

 

  1. Wassily Kandinsky. Concerning the Spiritual in Art

In this book, Kandinsky explains his theory and understanding of art, music, and the numinous. In the years 1911-1914, Kandinsky produced a number of large lyrical paintings. I’ve always loved these paintings, but it was only this past November, when I saw some of them again at Munich’s Lenbachhaus, that I realised the connection these paintings have to music and, more generally to a meaning that seems to circumvent language (Rothko’s work has the same effect). As I read Kandinsky’s book – it’s a slender book, but it demands a careful reading – some of the struggles and insights that beset my character, Adrian, sharpen and, at the same time, acquire a firmer foundation. Rather than the usual fragments that characterise this early stage of a novel, I actually reach for a proper notebook and write several pages.

 

  1. While I was in Germany I read Marjorie Perloff’s Edge of Ironyin which she, like others before her, visits the Hungarian intellectuals of the mid-twentieth century, an extraordinary group that included the mathematician John von Neuman, Arthur Koestler and Robert Capa, my favourite physicist Leo Szilard, and Elias Canetti – although Canetti could be said to have come from several places including Bulgaria and Vienna. Anyway Canetti was mentioned by Perloff, and I realised I had not read his three-volume autobiography. I’d always assumed I had, it being one of the books I OUGHT to have read.

I’ve read the first volume now, The Tongue Set Free, and am 2/3 the way through the second volume, The Torch in My Ear,the volume that charts his late teens through his twenties.

Books find you at the right time, and this is clearly my time for the Canetti autobiography. This morning I read a section in which Canetti may or may not be in love with a Russian chemist, Eva, who works in the same laboratory as he does. I think of the ramifications of not knowingif you love someone, and I’m not thinking of Canetti and the Russian chemist, I’m thinking of another of my characters, Claire, caught in a marriage that she regards as deep and meaningful and everyone else sees as cruel and destructive. I make some jottings and read on. Several pages later, Canetti writes of a specific type of hearing, a rare type of hearing that ‘was impossible unless you exclude your own feelings.’ My character Claire thinks about the common intrusion of this ‘I’. What people usually hear is first sieved through a mesh of their own desires and disappointments. And Claire starts to wonder about her own husband, what actually drives him in his relationship with her. I reach for the notebook.

 

  1. And poetry. I’m still dipping into Ted Hughes’ Crow— my character Adrian is an expert on death – and I’m about to pull down Goethe’s Prometheusfrom the shelf (it was mentioned in the Canetti autobiography), and I’ve not long finished The Death of Empedocles, both Hölderin’s and Matthew Arnold’s versions.

So this is just the current reading. If I glance down my lists for the last months of 2019 there are a lot of books, and very diverse. And what emerges from all this reading? An imagination that is ranging far and wide (definitely without a roadmap), new thoughts, new ideas, nascent characters who are gaining in flesh and sensibility, interesting scenes and curious events (most of which won’t survive the first draft), and three roughish chapters.

And so it goes. At the end of it all one hopes there’ll be a new novel. Ihope there will be. But it couldn’t happen without reading. Indeed,lifecouldn’t happen without reading.

.

 

CONVERSATION IN FLUX

The other day, following a conversation with a friend that ranged over current politics and political engagement, then moved on to changing modes of interpretation in the digital world, and ended up with my friend and I exchanging Netflix recommendations, I paused to reflect on the implicit understandings that had under-girded our conversation. These understandings formed a common ground we both drew on in the course of our conversation. The common ground itself represented an intellectual and cultural terrain established primarily through books we had read over many decades; these books (and their authors) had become touchstones in our on-going quest to understand the world around us.

In the past half hour, I said to him, we have drawn on, or alluded to, several books and authors. There was Kuhn’s notion of a paradigm shift when talking about the digital age; Goffman’s Presentation of Self in Everyday Lifewhen discussing identity and social media; Arendt’s Totalitarianism, Orwell’s essays and his 1984when attempting to understand the appeal of Trump; we have mentioned Sontag, Tony Judt, Masha Gessen, Camus, and many others. Also in our discussion, we have assumed that we both know the defining events of the modern era, that if 1848 or 1870 or 1905 are mentioned these will immediately conjure up the same events for us both: war and revolt across Europe (1848), a unified Germany and subsequent influx of Russian Jews escaping the pogroms (1870), the first (and failed) Russian Revolution (1905).

When we talk, I said to him, there is a wealth of information and knowledge that we take for granted; it’s not made explicit, it’s background – like respiration. If we were to bring all this material into the conversation, a thirty minute sprightly conversation would become a three hour turgid waffle.

My friend and I share a similar background. We are white, Jewish, secular, and of European descent (for him recently, for me far more remote); our touchstones reflect this. These touchstones both embody and reflect the tools we use in our understanding of the modern world. We could be exploring the appeal of Trump, the role of celebrity in shaping values, the slippery nature of values in secular societies, authoritarianism and popularism in the western world, the assault on the imagination and creativity generally in the digital age, the human capacity for delusion, we could be exploring any number of facets of the contemporary world but in our explorations the interpretative frameworks we would be using would reflect substantial intellectual inputs, the majority of which are of long-standing.

 

In my twenties and thirties, when much more time was spent in other people’s houses than is the case now, I used to study book shelves. A person’s books revealed who they were and what was important to them; their books also informed their worldview, their interpretative framework. Of course there were times when the books were misleading. There was one woman I knew whose shelves were heavy with Hegel and Habermas, as well as Adorno and Marcuse and the rest of the Frankfurt school (making a comeback, incidentally, with the rise of the pop president). Whenever this woman and I went away for a weekend, two or three of the heavy boys would come along with us; and, at home, two or three of the books would sit on her bedside table. The pattern did not change over the two years we were close. She would, on occasion, read a page or two, but no significant inroads were made in any of the books. I expect they still sit on a shelf somewhere, bookmarks poking out of early chapters.[i]

With most people, however, I found the book-cases a reliable guide to who they were, and if there were no books displayed back in those paper-filled days, that was a reliable guide too. The bookcase scrutiny test also provided for a sense of location and belonging. You learned who belonged to your intellectual and political tribe. Amongst those of us who were readers, there was enormous common ground, and while times have changed and books are not so much on display, the common ground established decades ago, is still revealed when we are in conversation today.[ii]

Common intellectual ground does its work quietly, until you find yourself in a situation where it is missing. Someone wants to discuss the rise of popularism but has none of the touchstones you have. So you can swap a few facts, but when it comes to ideas you’re stymied. Ideas have roots, and if the roots are different, or, which is often the case, missing entirely, how then do you converse?

In these fast-paced times of fleeting knowledge and multi-tasking, common ground is still being established, but the shared touchstones now tend to have a shorter lifespan than their forebears, and they are less likely to be books. A few years ago, feasting on The West Wing and Six Feet Under, a dedication to Seinfeldand being sure to see the latest Woody Allen film even though Woody had gone off the boil since he went off with the stepdaughter implied a raft of common knowledge and assumptions. TV series as touchstones have now morphed into streaming. Who is binging on what carries far more information than just the name of the series.

The laying of solid ground takes time, and our presentday touchstones have a relatively limited lifespan. Indeed, it’s the discontinuities that prevail these days, not the continuities. The contraction and weakening of shared solid ground have repercussions both for the exchange of ideas as well as the sense of who we are and what we believe. As for that old fundamental sense of connection rendered through books and conversation, social media platforms with all their pleasures and pains, their fickle rewards and lasting punishments have taken over that role.

The way we are communicating is changing rapidly: texts and tweets, Facebook and Snap chat, emails (but perhaps for not much longer) and chat rooms. Phone calls are fast going the way of the dodo, and face-to-face communication, with mobile phones screen-side up and in reach, is constantly interrupted.

Conversation is a skill, and like all skills it requires practice. Common conversational ground is not forming as it once did, and when it does appear. shared touchstones tend to be ephemeral. In the wind and dust of these times, in the bright lights and glittering promises of our age, conversation itself is on shaky ground.

__________________________________________-

[i]This same woman was described by some as ‘a genius’. A few years after our friendship had dwindled out, I heard her referred to as ‘an unproductive genius’. Such an oxymoron: the products are the proof of genius; without the products all that’s left is groundless reputation and myth-making.

[ii]The common ground does not remain static. Books and authors are added over the years, and some figures drop away. In recent times, Tony Judt, Zygmunt Bauman, Timothy Snyder, Alberto Manguel and others have been added to my cultural and political terrain, and I expect Jia Tollentino will earn a place there before too long. With fiction, Elizabeth Strout, Siri Hustvedt and Julian Barnes are in, while out go Lawrence Durrell (extraordinary how a writer so influential in your twenties can become not only irrelevant but actually anathema a few decades later), D.H. Lawrence, and F. Scott Fitzgerald (the latter was perfect for the self-destructive twenties: so much fun to be had while heading for the precipice).

The Slaughter of Language

There are books/authors that mark a time of life. Of these, I would include Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandrian Quartet; D.H. Lawrence and Scott Fitzgerald; Tilly Olsen, Grace Paley, May Sinclair and a swag of other women writers who were published through The Women’s Press and Virago. The defining characteristic of books that exert a significant power at a particular time is that most of them cannot survive later readings. It is best – kinder – to leave them in their times.

Other books/authors traverse an entire lifetime. For me, these would include the novels of Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf (also Woolf’s letters and diaries), Proust, E.M. Forster, Maugham, Coleridge, Rilke. Life companions such as these are relevant no matter where you are on your life’s journeying. You read them over and over again. Each rereading is a new reading.

I first read George Steiner’s Language and Silencein 1971. It was a remarkable event. I was astonished and captivated by the ideas, dazzled by Steiner’s erudition, delighted and surprised by the richness of his language. And there was a sense of privilege too, that I, a twenty-year-old in Melbourne, Australia had access to something so extraordinary.

I have returned to Steiner many times through the years. I have read each book of his as it was published (Steiner is over 90 and is still working) and I have returned to several of them, but none so often as Language and Silence. Steiner is definitely one of my life’s companions, most especially through his Language and Silence.

I am a more critical reader these days than I was as a twenty-year-old, but still I find Language and Silence a compelling book; still I come away with the delight and appreciation and new understandings that have accompanied all my readings. This morning I reread the second essay in the collection, ‘The Retreat from the Word’. In this essay, from 1961, Steiner considers the dilution and shrinkage of language usage. He writes about modes of understanding other than linguistic, e.g. mathematical and musical, as well as the use of jargon. He is highly critical of the often quasi-scientific jargon in the humanities and social sciences. This jargon does not illuminate, rather it obscures. (Steiner’s essay was written before critical theory strangled the life out of the language, replacing it instead with deadly neologisms.)

Since the time of Shakespeare, common language usage has consistently shrunk. These days, all you need is a few hundred words to navigate the press, social media and everyday conversation. A few hundred more and you could probably get a PhD. We are like Moloch, killing off all that is most humanly precious.

In killing off the language, we also snuff out theorising and understanding and debate. The process has been accelerated with the doorstop interview and the 24-hour news cycle. It is impossible to get across a policy or a complex argument in 10 or 20 seconds; similarly, it is difficult to persuade people to shift from long-held attitudes and beliefs. Under present conditions, considered explanation and reasoned argument are jettisoned, and instead, our politicians and policy makers are resorting to emotional wrenching and obfuscation in the guise of euphemisms.*

Remember THE PACIFIC SOLUTION (nothing peaceful about it), and PEOPLE SMUGGLERS (at one stage mentioned ad nauseum, in contrast to desperate people seeking asylum who were hardly mentioned at all), and QUEUE JUMPERS and the MALAYSIAN SOLUTION. Now we have the absurd and almost incredible NEGATIVE GLOBALISATION (straight out of the Breitbart handbook), the tritely rhetorical HOW GOOD IS….?, and the just plain trite IF YOU HAVE A GO, YOU GET A GOWhile the current Prime Minister on his recent suck-up trip to the US was an embarrassment, his use of language is simply shameful. It’s as if he, and others like him, actually want the population – us – to be ignorant and stupid. Yes, our leaders are dumbing us down.

Back in 2012, and posted on this website, I wrote an article titled THE LANGUAGE OF LYING, about the way in which language was being defiled and squeezed of life. It is only 7 years ago, but with the dominance of social media and the prominence of Twitter as a means of spreading news at the expense of the traditional news; with a man in the White House who talks in tweets, who lies without compunction, and who never defends himself against criticism but rather attacks instead, and with several similar types in other parts of the world mimicking the supreme commander, language is truly in terminal decline.

In Australia, anyone under twenty and most people under thirty have never known life outside the digital age. It is hard to suffer the loss of something you’ve never known or experienced. Privacy, contemplation, personal responsibility, mental arithmetic and memory (to mention just a few human qualities and skills) are fast going the way of telephone boxes and fish and chips wrapped in newspaper. And so too a language usage that is lithe, argumentative, subtle, persuasive, that feeds and expresses an active, hard-working intelligence.

How can we navigate our way through this complex, fast-paced world if we don’t have the language to perceive, to analyse, to understand what is going on? How can we change what needs to be changed if we cannot define it in the first place? How can we head into an uncertain future if our power to reason and understand, both vitally reliant on language, is crippled?

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*During the most recent election, Bill Shorten dropped his pre-fab zingers and decided instead to treat the electorate as capable and thoughtful. In the post-election analysis, however, it was decided that Shorten’s message was too complex, too over-whelming for the average Australian. (Is it like climate change? Have we passed the point of no return with our language usage and ability to consume ideas?)

I would argue against this analysis. Politicians need to work out other ways than the ten-second grab,\ to get ideas and policies across to the electorate. We need vision in our politicians, and we need skill. We need politicians who make us better citizens, and our country a better country, politicians who address the best in us, not our worst.

 

 

Thoughts on Travelling and Fiction

I have been to Paris, Amsterdam, Venice, Berlin, and a dozen other European cities. I’ve driven through Britain and Ireland, I’ve traversed America and Canada and South America. I’ve seen lions and leopards and other exotic creatures in Botswana and Tanzania; I’ve witnessed erupting volcanoes in Hawaii and New Zealand. I feel at home on the Upper West Side of New York City, and I enjoy a comfortable familiarity with London. Of all the earth’s territories, only Asia is missing on my travel map: I don’t like the heat and, more particularly, heat does not like me. I console myself that I can’t do it all.

I am particularly drawn to cold wilderness landscapes. I have been to Antarctica, Patagonia, Lapland and Iceland. I have trudged through snow-filled environments at -25 degrees Celsius, and have sped through snowy forests and across frozen lakes with my own dog-sled team. In Iceland, I walked across a white isolated undulating plain, surrounded on all sides by low mountains, the smooth crunchy snow unmarked by human or animal; and later on that trip, I stood on a beach covered in fresh snow, the grey stormy Atlantic raging in front of me, and a strip of startling black sand where the waves had washed the snow away. I have walked alone in the silent, shadowless environment of a mid-winter Lapland day feeling an extraordinary peace in that strange, soft-edged land.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When I went to Antarctica, it occurred to me that if there were to be a physical landscape that represented the imagination it would be this place. Borderless, untouched, silent, monochrome, with towering mountains and broad sinuous glaciers, its seas covered with sheets of ice and huge icebergs the size of a city blocks.

I have stepped inside the imagination, I thought, over and over again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fiction and travelling are very similar. Both are a journeying into the unknown. Both require curiosity and courage, and both, if they are to be fully explored, require an active imagination. When travelling, you can join a tour or follow a guidebook, or you can wander – at will or whim – entering the current of a place, trusting in yourself even though all is strange and new. But it is precisely because you are in a new and strange place that you are willing to take a risk, for who knows what you will find and what you will see, and how it might change you.

And opening a new novel: you might begin with a vague notion of the story, but basically you enter the narrative, trusting that the author has done the necessary work for your fictional journey. You plunge in without knowing where you are going, but hoping at the end of reading, you’ll be moved and changed by the experience.

The comparison with travelling is equallly relevant when writing a novel. You start the project with a stack of blank pages and a head full of possibility. And you’re nervous too, just like the nerves as you board the plane. You’re heading into the unknown, you’re fearful that the journey might prove just too hard, you can’t conceive of your destination much less being confident that you’ll achieve it. But just with journeying in the real world, you have to trust, and you must have courage, and if things go wrong, if you take the wrong path, even enter the wrong country, you’ll imagine what might have been and you’ll change direction. And if you find yourself again in the wrong place, again you will imagine other possibilities and try another way.

Fiction and travel: I love them both. The one feeds the other, the one inflates and illuminates the other, and both of them are testimony to the power, the pleasure and the pitfalls too of that essential and unique quality of being human, namely, the imagination.

Next stop for me: Shetland.
And the next novel: it has begun…

For those of you in Melbourne, the Writers’ Festival has begun. Shaped around the theme of love there are some very seductive sessions. I am involved in 3 sessions, including an in-conversation with Marieke Hardy – Festival director and very fine friend – Saturday September 7, 10am. I suggest you go to the MWF website and check out the program. It really is a beauty.