Category Archives: Imagination

NOT NOSTALGIA

A little over a century ago, E.M. Forster wrote ‘The Machine Stops’, a short story that depicts human civilisation some time in the future. I expect Forster was projecting into the far-distant future – millennia not centuries – but in certain respects the world of his story bears a remarkable resemblance to human society today. In Forster’s story people live by themselves in their own room (children are raised in special nurseries). Within these rooms everything necessary for life is available at the push of a button. When you are hungry you press a button and food appears, when thirsty, another button produces a drink. When you want to sleep you push a button and a bed materialises, when you wish to wash, the right button will conjure a bath. If you are feeling ill, a thermometer, stethoscope and other diagnostic tools will appear to test and diagnose, following which, appropriate drugs will be dispensed. Under normal circumstances people do not meet in the real world, there’s no need and besides, touch between humans is considered rude, even disgusting. There’s plenty of company via a blue screen which links each person with thousands of others located across the world. With so many friends and so much activity via the screen, people are busy, their every moment occupied. Art has no place in this world. Creativity itself has been rendered obsolete. Nature – mountains, sunsets, clouds – is feared. With everything in hand’s reach, direct observation of the world is deemed neither necessary nor desirable. People are happy to stay in their rooms. And why not? The machine looks after all of their needs.

I read this story in my twenties during my Forster phase – what a pleasurable plunge that was. I have returned many times since to the essays and the novels – Howard’s End and The Longest Journey in particular. But I’ve never consider Forster to be an aficionado of the short story form and wouldn’t have reread ‘The Machine Stops’ if not for an article by Atul Gawande about Oliver Sacks in The New Yorker (September 14th, 2015). Gawande, a physician and writer like Sacks himself, was an admirer of the great doctor who died 30th August, 2015. Gawande met Sacks only twice, the first time in 2002 when Gawende was completing his medical training and again in 2014. The two of them did, however, correspond by letter.

Sacks, according to Gawande, never used email, rather he wrote letters long-hand with a fountain pen on quality paper. In a letter, four weeks before he died, in which he bemoaned the deadening effects of social media, Sacks referred to the Forster story.

So, because of Sacks and because of Atul Gawende and because I am months behind with reading The New Yorker I have just reread ‘The Machine Stops’. I needed this story because of a recent longing for my old, portable Olivetti typewriter which, in a state of technological euphoria, I packed up and took to the Salvos some time last century.

I want it back.

I haven’t capitulated to nostalgia. I considered those milky yearnings an excuse to escape the demands and challenges of today. The term ‘nostalgia’ was coined in 1688 by a Swiss doctor, Johannes Hofer, in a dissertation to Basle University. He meant it as ‘a medical term to describe a depressed mood caused by intense longing to return home.’ (I gleaned this from an essay by Avishai Margalit on the role of the British in the making of modern Israel published in the NYRB, 7/2/2013.) A few centuries on, nostalgia relates to ‘home’ in the broadest sense: as a concept and a feeling – as well as a place. It is a notion fed by memory, by photos, by shared recollections, and by objects too. In essence there is nothing worrisome about this. The problem arises when longing for the past becomes primarily a longing for the familiar, for the known and certain. When longing for the past is used to flee from today’s rambunctious unpredictabilities.

My pangs for the old Olivetti tossed out during a technological high of several decades duration relates very much to concerns I wrote about in ‘Escape from Cyberspace’ (5/2/15) and the two posts about letter writing (‘Epistolary Pleasures’ – 22/6/15, and ‘The Passion of Letters’ – 16/7/15). In those articles I mounted a case for uncommitted time: time to think and imagine and create. Being constantly digitally connected is like being on speed: fabulously energising but not particularly productive. I have a desire for slow time. The manual typewriter, like writing letters, like the delights of onion skin paper, like my digital-free Saturdays, is in service not to nostalgia but a desire for deep and prolonged thought, and remaining with a train of thought long enough for ideas to emerge and be fleshed out, and understanding (quite different from knowledge) to be furthered.

My long discarded typewriter has been on my mind for months. The combination of Forster’s story, the fact that Sacks wrote letters longhand, and my own admiration and gratitude for Sacks work prompted me finally to make a move.

Having an Olivetti back in the days of yore wasn’t the same as having a Remington or an Olympia or an Underwood. It was akin to driving a Renault, reading Borges, travelling to Peru, and sitting through festivals of central European films. I was so taken by my Olivetti I made a tapestry of it. (And perhaps this is the time to confess that my Olivetti was actually not mine. Although it did become mine, but whether by fair means or foul, I can no longer say.)

Olivetti Typewriter

For decades I have noticed a shop near Melbourne University in the inner-city suburb of Carlton. The shop is called Elite Office Machines. The window display is a jumble of typewriters and adding machines. Some of these machines are not real but rather cute models. I have often wondered whether the owner of this shop collects typewriters or sells them. This morning I rang the proprietor. He’s a seller all right, a seller and a repairman, in fact Zeljko Koska is one of the few remaining typewriter repairmen in the country – possibly the entire world. He’s been operating from this location for 50 years, and yes, he said, he had a portable manual Olivetti.

I checked my phone. It was 38 degrees outside. Only a necessary mission would drive me into such heat (25 degrees is the upper limit of what I find tolerable). To Carlton I drove and found a parking spot right outside the shop. The parking gods are clearly partial to a manual typewriter, I decided. I entered the shop. Mr Koska – Tom – had just finished checking the Olivetti he had in stock. I looked at it. I looked at the case. It was mine, my old machine. I’m sure it was my machine. I couldn’t wait to get my fingers on it.

As it happened fingers, hands, wrists, indeed whole arms were needed. I had forgotten the pressure required to depress the keys of a manual typewriter. But the noise, that soothing yet driving clacking sound, was writerly Bach.

I went to an ATM to get some cash – no credit cards at Tom’s business – and decided that as much as I wanted an Olivetti, I also wanted a manual typewriter that was comfortable to use. On returning to the shop I tried a Brother Deluxe 750TR, a machine that would be a good decade younger than my Olivetti. The clack was even more musical and there was a spring in the keys that delighted my fingers. I tore myself away from my Olivetti – it was hard, very hard, but either I could capitulate to nostalgia or I could buy a typewriter that I knew would assist in a slower more meditative approach to work.

And here it is.

Olivetti tapestry

Tom, while fit and trim, is a man of a certain age. It turns out he is 73. If he’s not around who will service my typewriter? Who will supply the ribbons? He told me he had no plans to retire. He also revealed that people in their 20s and 30s make up a good many of his customers these days. Young people who seek the sort of slow, contemplative, creative intellectual stimulation that comes from books and digital-free days and manual typewriters.

In Forster’s story, diversity among people has disappeared. Fortunately in this aspect of his futuristic view he was wrong. Although the noise from social media, Google, iTunes and the rest fills our lives, the readers and creators and thinkers are still out there – in small numbers, but that has always been the case. And while they are, there’ll always be a place for hand-written letters, portable manual typewriters, and afternoons spent reading books – alongside the convenience, the wonders, the speed and the reach of digital technology.

 

The Passions of Alberto Manguel

Passions require time: time to develop in the first place, time to be expanded, time to be enjoyed. Passions, like any experience/activity that requires prolonged attention and an active imagination, can be tripped up even before they’ve found their legs in our contemporary fast-paced world. It is fortunate then, that the pleasures of passionate engagement whether with music, reading, maths, theatre, people or just being alive are such that even a short exposure is generally enough to hold a person for a life-time.

There have always been people who appear to inhabit lives of uniform colour and temperature, who can walk a glacier or climb a mountain and be occupied, not by the magnificence surrounding them, but their growling muscles. There have always been people who hear Bach or read Dickinson and complain of boredom, or see a flamboyant parrot or a scampering lyrebird and remain unmoved.

And there have always been people who inhabit the world as if on alert. Nature, art, people, so many experiences elicit from these people responses that are invariably high-octane. These are exciting people to be with, their enthusiasm rubs off, you feel more alive, more geared to possibility when you are with them.

There are friends who belong in the passionate category, and there are authors too. I have thrived in the company of Iris Murdoch, Virginia Woolf, Oliver Sacks, Walt Whitman, and many others. I’m excited when there’s a new book from, say, John Banville, Ann Patchett or Justin Cartwright. And even if their latest is not among their best I still enjoy moments walking the high peaks with them.

Alberto Manguel is one such writer. Recently I reviewed his latest book Curiosity. Even if I had not known his work, the title would have lured me in. Below is the review, published in Australian Book Review, September, 2015.

 

CURIOSITY by Alberto Manguel.
Yale University Press, $44.95 hb, 377pp, 9780300184785

There are two broad approaches to reading Alberto Manguel’s, Curiosity. The first type of reader will study the book – or rather, the text – assiduously connecting the personal narratives that introduce each chapter with the books Manguel references in the more theoretical and discursive aspects that follow. Dante’s Commedia is a constant presence in Curiosity, so they will have their Dante in easy reach for ready consultation, and they will strive to connect Dante’s journey with Manguel’s chapter titles, all of them questions: ‘How Do We Reason?’ (Ch. 3), ‘What Is Language?’ (Ch. 6), ‘What Is an Animal?’ (Ch. 11), ‘What Comes Next?’ (Ch. 15). They will make notes as they read, in an attempt to harness the voluminous material. And they will keep a separate list of the surprisingly numerous literary references that are unknown to them. This type of reader will try to get on top of the material, bring it to heel, master it.

The second type of reader will plunge in. They will not feel the ground beneath them, rather they’ll be swept up in Manguel’s narrative. As Virgil guides Dante, and Dante Guides Manguel, so Manguel guides this type of reader. It is an unpredictable journey. In the first chapter alone, ‘What Is Curiosity?’, Manguel saunters from Dante to Thomas Aquinas; he makes a quick digression to Augustine and Aristotle before slipping past Dante to David Hume and Diderot and Jean Le Rond d’Alembert, Diderot’s co-editor of the Encyclopédie (I had always thought Diderot did the job alone); there are nods to Boccaccio, Isaiah Berlin, Seneca, Socrates, and several others like Covarrubias (a Spanish lexographer who wrote an etymological dictionary in 1611), previously unknown to this reader. This is a journey without an itinerary. A risky odyssey, it is impossible to anticipate where Manguel is heading. But this second type of reader, trusting that Manguel knows what he is doing, goes with the current. These readers are so immersed in Manguel’s wanderings, they might be in a trance as they read – this book is their entire reality – they’re prickling with awareness, in a world bathed in a golden, if sometimes opaque light. These readers are guided by Manguel but, at the same time, they are nudged along by books they’ve read themselves, experiences they’ve had, and thoughts and ideas that surface without warning.

The first type of reader seeks control of the material, the second, although no less hungry for understanding, can tolerate the mystery of the not-yet-known (and perhaps never to be fully known) and the uncertainties of an intellectual quest without a plot.

The capaciousness of Manguel’s curiosity, his voracious reading, and his eagerness to share both with his readers are simultaneously wonderful and daunting. This is old news to those familiar with Manguel’s earlier work. With an author who can leap from the mid-thirteenth century Spanish scholar Abraham Abulafia to Borges in a single paragraph, any attempt to control the material is, I believe, counter-productive. Too much in the way of analysis somehow annuls the meaning and sense of understanding that arises from this material. Trust Manguel: in The City of Words, A Reading Diary, A History of Reading and A Reader on Reading*, he has proved to be not simply a reliable guide, but the best there is outside Dante’s first circle of Hell.

Manguel, driven by his own ravening curiosity, ranges here, there and everywhere in Curiosity, so it is somewhat amusing that he adheres to a strict format in the structure of his latest book. It is comprised of seventeen chapters, each titled with a question, and each beginning with a full page illustration depicting a woodcut from the 1487 printing of the Commedia (with commentary by Cristoforo Landino). I am wedded to Doré’s illustrations to Dante, their detail and lyricism form a perfect duet with the poem. These fifteenth century woodcuts do not speak to me in the same way; they simply do not – to me – depict the terrible horrors that are related in the Inferno, nor the sublime joys of Paradiso. I am curious as to why Manguel chose them over Doré’s plates. Sometimes the connection between the particular canto from the Commedia and the chapter question is obvious, sometimes it becomes clear by the end of the chapter, and on other occasions a second or third reading will be required. Understandings surface when one reads Manguel.

The text of each chapter begins with a page or two of personal material: a happening from Manguel’s childhood, a recent illness, sexual discrimination in his childhood books (Anne of Green Gables for girls, The Coral Island for boys), Argentina’s dirty war, the economic crisis in Argentina in 2006, concern over the environment, animals, injustice in the world. Following the personal snippet are approximately ten pages during which Manguel wanders through art and literature gathering material that enhances and elaborates on the chapter question. The dynamic is reminiscent of musical improvisation.

Questions, as Manguel makes clear, are far more saturated with meaning than answers. Curiosity is short on answers. What it has are intellectual explorations triggered by all the crucial questions that comprise the human project; indeed, most of the chapter questions have inspired entire schools of philosophy. No précis nor synopsis would do this book justice. Suffice it to say that for readers of Manguel, his favourites are here – Montaigne, Plato, Alice, Don Quixote – and his customary concerns: how we make sense of the world, how we can understand one another. There are many delights. In the chapter ‘What Are We Doing Here?’, Manguel reveals Dante as an environmentalist (with a touch of Paganism) and the Commedia as an environmentalist tract. And surprising thoughts. After reading his account of Nimrod and the building of the Tower of Babel, atheist that I am, I found myself thinking that God made a big mistake, that he should have found a different punishment for the people’s heresy, anything but the confounding of language and meaning. How much more difficult it would be for hatred, prejudice, brutality and corruption to occur if we shared a common language.

The last two chapters of Curiosity, ‘Why Do Things Happen?’ and ‘What Is True?’ represent, at least to me, Manguel’s narrative assent into paradise. As I closed the book, I felt a little as Dante did when brought into the presence of his Beatrice.

 

*Reviewed by AG in ABR, May 2010.

 

 

VOLUPTUOUS LANGUAGE

In 1998, the National Gallery of Victoria mounted an exhibition titled, Beyond Belief – Modern Art and the Religious Imagination. The exhibition appealed to me not because of any strong religious beliefs of my own, but I was drawn (and continue to be so) by the pairing of different types of imagination, in this instance, the spiritual and the visual. I did not know which artists were to be included, but I understood from the advance publicity that many were well-known.

The day I visited the exhibition there was quite a crowd. I was alone and in no hurry, so loitered beyond the outer edge of onlookers, waiting for the crowd to thin. And so it was that I walked around a screen and there, several metres away, I saw a small Rothko (it was Black, brown on maroon, 1957). My first response was delight at the unexpected meeting with one of my favourite artists, my second response even while the delight continued, was tears. I stood there in an open space beyond the crowd gazing at this Rothko with tears rolling down my face.

Rothko. Black, Brown on Maroon

Rothko. Black, Brown on Maroon

The painting affected me in a way I did not understand. But something profound HAD happened. If I say about the experience that I was moved (and I clearly was moved) it does not do justice to what was an intense and complex reaction. If I say that I was overwhelmed by intense emotion, it still gives little indication of what I was feeling at the time.

There are certain experiences, intense and significant, for which common language usage all too often fails. The appreciation of music, for example, or the expression of pain, or a description of wonder, or my unexpected reaction to Rothko’s painting. More often than not the attempt to explicate, actually leeches the experience of its essence.

So what happened when I caught sight of that Rothko hanging on the gallery wall?

I was waterlogged with wonder

I stumbled into paradise

I gazed into the face of God

I fell into a Mahler symphony

 

As to which metaphor I might use, that would depend both on my experience and the person to whom I was attempting to share it with. Gazing into the face of God might hit the spot with someone of a religious disposition, the Mahler metaphor with someone musical, natural world metaphors with those connected with the natural world.

Too often we treat language as if it were arithmetic, wherein an equivalence is assumed/sought between symbol and referent. But as Magritte so aptly demonstrated in his Ceci n’est pas une pipe, language is not the thing. We might speak of the infinite nature of language, can actually show how it works in theory, but in practice, language usage is all too finite. We have nailed language to the mast of unambiguity. We have stripped it of its music. We have smoothed out its paint strokes. We have made words into Lego blocks.

When language in this unambiguous and hobbled form is used to describe an experience like my Rothko experience, of course it fails, of course it falls short. So much of my Rothko experience was non-verbal, or extra-verbal, and only language that spills its usual boundaries will do the experience justice. We humans live in a language dictatorship. Like the Russian poets during the years of Stalin, we need to go underground.

It’s not vocabulary we are wanting (although the impoverished vocabularies of most of us could do with considerable expansion), rather we need to bring imagination to language usage, we need to impregnate our language with tone and texture and sensation and atmosphere.

Of all the tools of language and communication it is metaphor that subverts the whole notion of sign-symbol equivalence, that smashes the ties of immutability between language and its referents. Metaphor is the wild child of language, the recalcitrant offspring which can turn around and teach its elders what they did not realise they did not know. Metaphor makes the familiar strange and different. Metaphor brings music to language, it brings sensation and emotion. Metaphor subverts routine ways of seeing and thinking and communicating, and thereby it illuminates the shadows of meaning.

The right metaphor can portray complex emotional and intellectual responses with great power and economy – which is why poetry, good poetry, can have such a profound effect, and bad poetry, of which there is an inordinate amount, feels like such a betrayal. But in fact prosaic and routine language usage is no less a betrayal. If an artist were to restrict his palate to green, if a composer were to confine herself to a single octave, we would feel betrayed. So, too with banal and hackneyed language usage. It’s treating the great gift of language in cavalier fashion, it is also denying what marks we humans off from other animals: language and the imagination.

And why be concerned about this now? Public language as seen in the two second rehearsed grabs of our politicians, as seen in the mindless talking in exclamation marks of comperes of reality TV shows, has never been so impoverished. If we don’t act soon we will lack the language to describe what has gone wrong, much less fix the situation.

 

 

PORTABLE PLEASURES

 

Recently, while sitting in a café I found myself eavesdropping on the conversation at the next table. It was a group of five, all of them bright and twentyish, all dressed in skimpy fashionable clothes, all with well-mussed, multi-coloured hair, each sporting one or more tattoos on otherwise smooth and unmarked skin. They were playing a game of ‘My favourite Things’. Their voices were resonant, they laughed a lot. First there were favourite films, followed by favourite pieces of music. Then in quick succession came favourite shop, favourite brand, favourite device, favourite sexiest person, and lastly favourite colour.

Decades ago when Malcolm Fraser was prime minister, Tammy Fraser was asked in a radio interview her favourite colour – as if there were nothing more important to ask this particular first lady. To my horror she did not sound insulted nor did she hesitate.

Yellow, she replied, my favourite colour is yellow.

At the time Fraser, and all associated with him, were not favoured by the left. Even forgetting the limited merits of yellow, the fact that Tammy took colours so seriously – and favourites always help to define oneself – condemned her to remain where we on the left had unquestioningly put her.

Life was a much more simple affair back then.

And yet I have always had favourites.

In Bunuel’s Tristana, one of the characters looks for and finds the best green pea on the plate. I watched that scene and I recognised myself. I make a point, a private point of finding my favourite pea, my favourite potato chip, my favourite cherry. I have favourite flowers and trees, not botanical favourites, but a particular flower on a particular plant. My favourite elm stands near the Yarra River where Alexander Parade turns into Punt Road. My favourite oak, planted in the 1880s and recently cut down due to age and disease, was an Algerian Oak on the edge of the oak garden in Melbourne’s Botanic Gardens. I have an ever-expanding list of favourite books, I have favourite passages and verses from books (copied into the latest of several quote notebooks). I have favourite buildings and streets, favourite towns and cities, favourite paintings and sculptures, favourite musicians and musical compositions.

 

Quote book

Quote book

And I have a favourite letter.

A few years before Tammy’s interview I began keeping a personal dictionary. Frustrated at having to consult my Oxford dictionary for the same words over and over again – the meaning of certain words simply would not stick – I purchased a sturdy notebook, cut an index along the right-hand side for the letters of the alphabet and every time I looked up a word in Oxford’s dictionary I copied it into my own. I also decided to include in my dictionary interesting words whose meaning I knew, but in the haste and habits of everyday life I would forget I knew, words like ‘canker’ and ‘conceit’ and ‘clotted’ which when put with other words – clotted memories, family conceits, cankerous yearnings – spiced up this whole lovely business of words.

Years passed before I realised that the words of one letter ran to several more pages than any other in my personal dictionary. That letter was ‘p’. And now, along with parrots, the music of J.S. Bach and Bleu de Basque cheese, I rank ‘p’ words high on the scale of my favourite things.

Personal Dictionary

Personal Dictionary

Take ‘patina’ and ‘palimpsest’ and ‘pentimento’. For a person such as myself burdened with secrets these words supplied some gorgeous and relief-giving metaphors. And as an eighteen-year-old desperate to get away, peripatetic peregrinations encapsulated the freedom I longed for wrapped in the lyricism of travel. My sins became the far more acceptable peccadilloes, my pessimism was readily placated by propitious signs, my lack of perspicacity was less of a failure than purblindness. My sense of being at odds with the world, the perfidious world, run by pettifoggers who lacked prescience, found an effective panacea in ‘p’ words.

The appeal of ‘p’ certainly does not reside in its sound. That voiceless puff could never, for example, compete with the sonorous ‘m’ or the tricky ‘r’. The attraction is in the phantasmagoria of ‘p’ words. ‘P’ is the verbal imagination’s favourite child. Once I wrote a letter almost entirely with ‘p’ words – it was a perfect letter.

And if not for ‘p’ I would never have produced my one and only public work of art.

To describe my artistic ability as parsimonious would be to give it airs, so when I agreed to decorate a platter for a fund-raising auction conducted by the Jewish Museum I was understandably challenged. The platter arrived; it was 43 centimetres in diameter and very blank. I was rightly perturbed. I considered a pastiche of portraits cut from various papers but that would have publicised my lack of talent. I considered a range of lies to get me out of the whole thing, but pride stopped me. As the deadline approached and I was still procrastinating, my fears were palpable and my pride was heading for a fall.

And then it occurred to me: I would make a P-Plate.

In different sized fonts I typed out ‘p’ words. Perplexed, pungent, promise, painting, propinquity, piano, politics, people, philology, pertinacious, prose, poetry, 232 words in all. I cut out the words and glued them to my platter. And then I varnished the whole thing. I produced a high-gloss p-plate. And a person purchased it, a person of impeccable taste, and for quite a pretty price too.

Many things are not portable, but all favourite things are. It is the imagination which confers their status and bestows on them their delights. And it is in the imagination they remain special. The material world is so cluttered and cumbersome, but this world of favourite things is a paradise.

 

READING DANTE

It is 1960, Melbourne. There’s a shed down the end of the garden. It is empty save for a bench on which sits a child with a book. There’s a musty smell overlaid with the tang of pine. The door to the shed doesn’t close and the soughing of the wind in the huge pine tree cushions the silence that surrounds the reading child.

Another scene. The same child reading a different book is sitting on the floor in a corner of a large attic room. The attic smells of dust, old smoke and neglect. There are battered suitcases and boxes, there are rickety chairs and fold-up tables, and a chest filled with ancient photos and theatre programmes. Down one end of the attic there’s a small door that opens into the roof. The child sits as far from this door as possible, yet must keep it in view, must keep a watchful eye on the demons and spirits that lurk in the roof’s blackness. And watch she does, periodically looking up from her book. But after a while it seems she has forgotten about the demons because her gaze no longer lifts from the page. She’s given herself over to fiction.

A third image. The same little girl as before is stretched out on her bed in the room she shares with her sister, an open book propped against her pillow. Beyond the bedroom family life whirls about. There are voices calling, a radio blaring, a barking dog. The child is immune to it all; she’s lost in her book.

******

Reading for me has always been a private affair. As a child growing up in the crowded world of the family, reading was my sanctuary and a time of necessary solitude. My mother valued reading so, if I had a book in my hands, I was left alone. With the book of the moment I would be whisked away to other times and places and into the lives of people very different from those who filled my ordinary days. It was the making of me as a writer. Those hours spent reading, those hours spent in a deep and prolonged immersion in the imagination is what gives rise to creative work. Reading took me into a world of make-believe. Here life was real, it was authentic, but it was made up. And even if it were not real – as a very young child I loved Enid Blyton’s fantasies and the tales of King Arthur and his knights – it seemed as if it could be.

In fact, I learned very early that fiction could convince me of just about anything.

As a very young child, I enjoyed being read to. But as soon as I learned to read independently I wanted to keep the pleasure all to myself. It was not only the stories that held me in thrall, there was the utterly seductive effect of reading itself. A unique intimacy was created between me and the characters, and through them with the imagination of the author. There is no intimacy to compare to this sort of imaginative coupling.

I never felt the need to discuss the books I read. They were part of my private world, a world that shaped my understanding and my desires. I harboured the sense that to reveal how important these books were, would both taint their effect as well as betray the life I secretly longed for, which was, in fact, the secret life I was actually living.

I grew up. Books still filled my days and still I guarded them closely. I found in them security, I found excitement, I found curiosity, I found endless stimulation, I found illumination. I did not want my reading to be public. I did not want my reading to be touched.

Then several years ago I changed the pattern of a lifetime. I asked a small group of people to join me in reading Plato’s Dialogues. Over the years I had dipped into several of the dialogues, but I had arrived at a point where I found this unsatisfactory, and all my attempts at private study had petered out long before the task was finished. The group provided the necessary structure I seemed to require.

At first I found it difficult to discuss what I had read. Being public, being in a group, felt like working against the current, trying to run with stiffened limbs. And it was difficult to listen to others with my own reading reverberating in my mind. And the pace of discussion could be irritating. You set your own pace when reading, but a discussion will sometimes pull you back or push you forward faster or slower than you would choose for yourself. But in time I adapted and came to enjoy our meetings. After a while we moved from Plato’s dialogues to Montaigne’s essays. And then, after a year or two, life with its demands and its deaths intervened, and the group stopped meeting.

Next week will see the first meeting of another group: three of us have decided to read Dante’s Divine Comedy, three cantos for each monthly meeting. Years ago I read Dorothy L. Sayers’ translation of The Inferno, and I always planned to read Purgatorio and Paradiso but never got round to it. As with Plato, a group seemed the way to proceed.

I’ve been preparing for our first meeting by a full reading of The Inferno. I have several translations at hand but have focussed particularly on those by Robert Pinsky (for the poetry), Mark Musa (for the lucidity and the detailed notes) and John Ciardi (a looser translation but very lyrical). I also have a quarto-sized book containing the hauntingly beautiful plates of Gustave Doré’s illustrations for The Divine Comedy. I love the focus of this reading, the detail, I love the study. And yet I know that if not for the group I would not be reading Dante in this way or at this time.

Antaeus - Descent to the last circle. Inf XXXI

What is happening here? Why a sharing of what has always been a private activity?

It seems to me that some books are so layered and so complex that to be fulfilled by them – and to find them fulfilling – requires study and discussion and the richness that comes from other minds, other thoughts, other understandings. But there’s something else as well, and it concerns the type of reading involved. When I open a novel, a novel that is the right book for the time, I find myself drawn inside the fictional world. I experience understanding from the inside; I become one of the initiated. This does not stop me from reflecting as I read, making connections between this novel and other books (novels, poetry, history, philosophy) but as soon as I start reading again I am pulled back into that imagined world.

This is not how I read Plato’s Dialogues, nor is it the way I read Dante. Here the reading is infused with study. I am grappling to understand from the outside. I am grappling rather than being immersed. Even with Dante, who has told a gripper of a story, I am not pulled inside the narrative in the way I am with, say, Jane Austen or Elizabeth Strout or Justin Cartwright.

It is reading for study rather than reading for creative life. It’s reading to know, rather than reading to be. That is not to say I won’t glean fundamental understandings from Plato or Dante, of course I will, but it is the act of reading of these books that is so different from my fiction reading.

I expect many others would want to disagree.

CONVERSING WITH FAMOUS DEAD PEOPLE

I have had a long-standing habit of conducting conversations with famous dead people. It started in early childhood. While other children had imaginary playmates, children they made up and who were much like themselves, my imaginary playmates (although we never played, only talked) were abducted from the novels I read – obvious ones like the boy in the wheelchair in The Secret Garden and less obvious ones like King Arthur. (An old friend, on hearing about my penchant for King Arthur, pointed out that my father’s name was Arthur, hinting at unresolved Oedipal conflicts. But of all my loves, that for my father was the least complicated, and his attractions quite different from King Arthur’s.)

Back in those days privacy was a rarity. Like most of my friends I shared a bedroom, and pocket money might stretch to the Saturday afternoon matinee at the Victory or a session at St Moritz skating rink but little more. Certainly there was no sulking in your own bedroom to the comfort of your very own record player turned up to a hostile boom in order to obliterate the family from the adolescent consciousness. Even if a greater number of props to solitude had been available back in those days, the disposable income was not – and even if it had been, a child was unlikely to be the main beneficiary. Back then, childhood was a time of deprivation, at least relative to what your parents seemed to have. There were spoiled children who were showered with gifts, but for most children fun, although plentiful, was necessarily cheap.

Privacy within the home was rare, but outside the home was quite another matter. Kids were told to get out from under their parents’ feet. We would walk alone to the corner milk bar for a polly waffle or choc wedge, or a little further to the park to play, or on your bike and riding the neighbourhood streets. And then there was the cubby at the back of the garden. Cubbies were so private there were passwords for entry.

While my sister hung out in the front garden behind the hedge smoking Turf filter tips with her friend Joan, I occupied the back shed, not far from the incinerator, for long leisurely conversations with the best of the best. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett, Heathcliffe, Scarlett O’Hara, a whole swathe of characters from Iris Murdoch novels, Leon Uris heroes, and many many more. Private, cheap, entertaining, enormously satisfying, infinitely rich conversations.

As my reading broadened so, too, did my choice of companion, with a major shift from characters to their creators. By the time I left school I was conversing with famous dead people, regular conversations with Madame Curie, Jean-Paul Sartre and Virginia Woolf – not together, of course, that would never do, in fact all my conversations have been one-on-one. At the time I knew next to nothing about the real life personae of Virginia and Jean-Paul and wanted to keep it that way. Indeed, I protected my conversations by steering shy of all biographies and autobiographies except those which might serve my purpose, like Sartre’s Paroles, which had the effect of inserting the author more firmly, and certainly more appropriately into my private sphere.

My conversations with famous dead people have afforded me enormous pleasure; they have also been the primary way in which I have clarified my ideas. Once admitted to the circle I rarely get rid of anyone, although our meetings might diminish to an occasional imagined letter. In addition to Curie, Sartre and Woolf, there have been Bertrand Russell, Aldous Huxley, Theodor Adorno, Debussy, Barthes (my Debussy and Barthes speak excellent English). And there have been others, still alive, but irrevocably distant from my real existence like Iris Murdoch, Hannah Arendt, George Steiner. (Years ago, when my friend Robert Dessaix interviewed George Steiner on the ABC’s books programme, I remember feeling embarrassed – and a little jealous too – as if someone had caught me out doing something not quite legitimate).

Such perfect conversations these are, with such assured outcomes, and I always so fluent, so erudite, and so unselfconscious when compared with real conversations where I’m liable to talk rot and am struck by brilliant insights ten minutes too late. Perfect conversations in which I control the ebb and flow of ideas. And even though I remain unsure where the conversation will end, I am absolutely certain that not only will I survive to the end, I’ll do so with flying colours. These conversations, always so intellectually and morally sound, persist unencumbered by corporeal distractions like body odour, or constipation, or unsightly moles, or personality constraints like vanity, or hypochondria, or a dull and intransigent resentment of early family life. And I, too, exist unencumbered by any imperfections in these conversations, whether undesirable personal qualities or, indeed, the risks and slips of the usual face-to-face interaction.

But I do not fool myself – have never fooled myself. My perfect imagined conversations, their intellectual rigour notwithstanding, are nonetheless contrived, and while permitted to meander here and there, they do so only under my direction. This perfection is restricted and solely under my control. It makes a nice change to the rest of life.

Restricted perfection. What an interesting notion.

GALAPAGOS WONDERS

 

Marine iguana

Marine iguana

Practised writers know to resist the temptation to write about an exceptional experience until it has had time to be rinsed through the nervous system. A week, a month, or more likely several months or years is required, during which the original experience having passed through a complex web of memory, aesthetics and ethical gateways will eventually produce an essay or article that manages to expose the essence of the original experience.

This certainly was the case with my trip down to Antarctica made in November, 2006. Apart from the occasional metaphor, I did not draw on my Antarctic experience until years later, most particularly in a long personal essay titled ‘Home Triptych’, included in Home Truths, an anthology edited by Carmel Bird and published by 4th Estate in 2010. The trip to Antarctica was unique, it was life-changing. It was a journey into a landscape of the imagination, the landscape of the imagination. It was an experience that challenged language. It needed time.

I have just returned from the Galapagos Islands. I came home to a bulging email inbox. One email, in preparation for an upcoming gig, asked me to complete the statement: my key life learning is…

I wrote about curiosity and an openness to wonder as fuel for everyday life; I wrote, too, about the importance of finding the extraordinary in the ordinary. I wrote my reply and after I sent it off it occurred to me that, for the first time in my life, in the Galapagos I had witnessed the extraordinary as an ordinary, everyday occurrence. I walked past bevies of marine iguanas draped over sea-splashed lava benches, I swam with sea lions and turtles, I dived with penguins, I passed within an arm’s length of nesting frigatebirds and blue-footed boobies, I did all this and much much more on a daily, even an hourly basis.

Blue-footed booby with chick Land iguana Frigatebirds

So many wonders.

And this morning, reading a biography of the artist and cartoonist Saul Steinberg (most famous for his cartoon of Manhattan and the rest of the world) I came across a play on Descartes’ Cogito (incidentally it was Descartes who named wonder as the first of the passions). Instead of cogito ergo sum was written dubito ergo sum: I doubt therefore I am. The dubito stance is entirely consistent with a ravenous curiosity and an openness to wonder. I love the notion of dubito ergo sum.

The Galapagos Islands filled me with wonder, no less now that I am home than when I was actually walking among some of the most extraordinary creatures on the face of the earth, and across a variety of landscapes unique in my experience. It may be simple enthusiasm, it may be untamed excitement, it may be the force of the adventure itself, but this Galapagos experience won’t wait. Which is not to deny that when I draw on the same experience in two or three or four years time it will yield far deeper, more considered and thoughtful work.

So much of what I saw in the Galapagos Islands was unimaginable, and even when I was there a breath away from a land iguana, the creature right there in front of me, to make sense of it required all my imaginative resources. These animals – the iguanas, the yellow warblers that flitter around my feet, the turtle swimming towards me, the weird and weighty giant tortoise that lumbers past me on the way to the water-hole – these animals are so vastly different to what I’ve been used to, they challenge all my taken-for-granted assumptions.

Red-footed booby Giant tortoise

And the terrain, too, has a similar effect. There are fields of lava everywhere, ageing red and grey crumbling lava, and fresh gorgeously black stuff in organic slabs and swirls. I could be anywhere – but nowhere I’ve ever been before.

Organic lava Landscape with lava

These animals and birds, this landscape, these seas, all usher me into new terrain. It’s like entering a film or a novel or a piece of music. A landscape unlike anything I’ve ever seen before demands the same sort of total attention and creative response as does a work of art. Good art astonishes. Good art takes you out of the everyday – and so too this landscape and these creatures.

Don’t forget this, I tell myself as I watch four orcas frolicking in the seas in front of the boat, don’t forget this, I tell myself as I swim out of the path of a floating turtle. Live always with the shock, the wonderful shock of the new.

Great blue heron

Great blue heron

Yellow warbler

Yellow warbler

American oyster-catcher

American oyster-catcher

Storm-petrel dancing

Storm-petrel dancing

Dolphins!

Dolphins!

Frigate-bird with fledgling

Frigate-bird with fledgling