Imperfect ‘Acquaintances’: Our Companions In Life

In Journey Without Maps (Penguin, New York, 1936:1978, p. 28) Graham Greene writes:

There are places when one is ready to welcome any kind of acquaintance with memories in common: he may be cheap but he knew Annette; he may be dishonest but he once lodged with George; even if the acquaintance is very dim indeed and takes a lot of recognizing.

Greene wrote these words in response to his encountering Orient Express–an undistinguished, “cheap banal film” that was the cinematic version of his Stamboul Train–in Tenerife, and which forced uncomfortable introspection:

It had been an instructive and painful experience to see it shown….If there was any truth in the original it had been carefully altered, if anything was left unchanged it was because it was untrue. By what was unchanged I could judge and condemn my own novel: I could see clearly what was cheap and banal….There remained a connection between it and me….even into a book of that kind had gone a certain amount of experience, nine months of one’s life, it was tied up in the mind with a particular countryside, particular anxieties; one couldn’t disconnect oneself entirely, and it was curious, rather pleasing to find it there in the hot bright flowery town.

Given Greene’s inclination to flirt with the spiritual and the transcendent in his writings, he invites a more ‘cosmic’ reading of the claim quoted at the beginning of this piece.

One ‘place,’ of course, where ‘one is ready to welcome any kind of acquaintance with memories in common’ is this world, this waking life. We are lonely, cast adrift from birth; we, strangers each and every one of us, need fellow travelers through this strange land. We clasp the hands of those we encounter, hoping for succor, for companionship; on birth, we had been fortunate enough to find parents, our first acquaintances, shepherds that helped us navigate the many shoals through which we had to pass. Later, we sought friends; then, lovers; hoping to find partners for our various journeys. The ‘memories in common’ here are shared remembrances of that terrible loneliness which we have known which we sense will never desert us, and which afflicts others too; we sense a need like ours exists on the ‘other side’ too; the companionship we offer will be gratefully accepted too. There are flaws and blemishes here in our possible companions beyond counting but we are willing to take them on board; for the monumental ‘task’ at hand, many imperfections will be tolerated and looked past; there is just enough familiarity here to serve as the foundation for a lasting relationship. It need not be a lifelong one; company till the next station will be good enough.

Note: Our need for companionship of any kind may, in the right circumstances, be exceedingly great; explorers of all stripes who have been forced to travel alone will even hallucinate companions during their extended sojourns. Memorably, during his famed 1953 pioneering ascent of Nanga Parbat, the Austrian alpinist Hermann Buhl spent the night standing upright on a icy rock ledge some twenty-five thousand feet above sea level; at night, his backpack became his ‘companion’ and protagonist for extended conversations.

Can An Adult Read a Book Like a Child?

In ‘The Lost Childhood’ (from The Lost Childhood and Other Essays, Viking Press, New York, 1951), Graham Greene writes:

Perhaps it is only in childhood that books have any deep influence on our lives. In later life we admire, we are entertained, we may modify some views we already hold, but we are more likely to find in books merely a confirmation of what is in our minds already: as in a love affair it is our own features that we see reflected flatteringly back.

But in childhood all books are books of divination, telling us about the future, and like the fortune teller who sees a long  journey in the cards or death by water they influence the future. I suppose that is why books excite us so much. What do we ever get nowadays from reading to equal the excitement and the revelation in those first fourteen years….it is in those early years that I would look for the crisis, the moment when life took a new slant in its journey towards death.

As my posts here on Richard Wright’s Native Son and Toni Morrison’s writing in Sula would indicate, I’m inclined to disagree with Greene: I do think its possible for even adults to read books that they consider to have had a ‘deep influence on their lives.’

However, I think too, that I have a sense of what Greene is getting at. The ‘distance’–between one point of emotional and imaginative maturity and another–a childhood book helps you traverse is perhaps far greater than that any book read in adulthood could take you. The books we encounter in childhood find us having barely commenced many mental journeys; the first steps they help us take are often gigantic and accompanied by a kind of thrill we only rarely encounter in adult life. We are not yet jaded, not yet cynical. All of this is implied in the claims Greene makes above.

The reason a book read in adult life can have the ‘deep influence’ Greene speaks of is related to the childhood reading experience. We might grow up with our selves developed unevenly; we might find ourselves possessed  of great accomplishment and maturity in one domain and yet utterly lacking in sophistication and edification in another. Our formative years might have been biased by particular sorts of influences that drove out yet others; we are, so to speak, only well done on one side. Pockets of callow superficiality lurk within us.

At these moments then, thanks to fortuitous discovery, we are set up for an encounter that is like our childhood reading: we find ourselves experiencing an epiphany of sorts, the same giddiness that so thrilled us as children comes upon us again. And we speak of our newly found intellectual companion in the same breathless fashion as we did of our teenage crushes.

So, I think focusing on chronological age is a mistake. As long as–thanks to previous immaturity–we bear the potential for radical growth within us, we will continue to experience these ‘books of divination.’ Adults can read books like children.

Graham Greene on Happiness

In a post last year on the subject of happiness, I had cited Freud and Burke–the founders of psychoanalysis and political conservatism, respectively. Their views of happiness spoke of the seemingly necessarily transitory nature of the sensation we term happiness–Freud even enlists Goethe to help make this claim–that happiness was marked by brief, fleeting intensity, by its ‘novelty and contrast’.

Today, for a slightly different perspective, I’m going to enlist Graham Greene, a member of that class of humans with perhaps exceptional insight into the human condition, the novelist. Greene always was, in his autobiographical writing, very frank about his depression, psychoanalytic treatments, and the influence these had on his writing and in the case of psychoanalysis, his understanding of the supposed relationship of the unconscious to creativity; his views on happiness should be of interest here.

During the course of a series of interviews conducted by Marie Françoise-Allan, Greene, in speaking of his childhood says:

[H]appiness is repetitious, while pain is marked by crises that which sear the memory. Happiness survives only in the odd incident. Being happy is almost like making love: One attains a state of blissful ‘nothing’–one does not remember, one remembers only happiness, a state of contentment.

This is quite a mixed bag. First, happiness is described as ‘repetitious’–perhaps it is a mental state which recurs or is more temporally extended than pain, which is described in terms similar to the ones that Freud and Burke used to describe happiness. Here, Greene seems to suggest that happiness is a mental state with continuity, one which acquires its distinctive quality because of its ‘sameness’, its invariance. But then, happiness is described as surviving only in ‘the odd incident’, a return to the episodic state described by Freud and Burke. And lastly happiness is compared to the orgiastic pleasures of ‘making love’, a ‘blissful nothing’ which is perhaps supposed to be like the Buddhist nirvana, but with very few particular features to it, so much so that the subject remembers no details but just the sensation (or lack of it). Happiness is now analogized to a ‘petite mort‘ a little dying, a little flirtation with a state of nothingness. (It should be clear that in these descriptions Greene is taking the side of the philosophical inquiry into happiness that suggests it is a psychological term like ‘melancholia’ as opposed to that which would consider it a ‘value term, roughly synonymous with well-being or flourishing’ (Dan Haybron, Stanford Encyclopedia, ‘Happiness‘).)

This does not amount to very coherent view of happiness. Perhaps it is because of Greene is answering a series of questions about the happiness of childhood, and so his memories of that time have suffered the attrition of memory. Indeed, his interlocutor makes a great deal of this loss of memory in this session, remarking on how Greene’s childhood does not play a particularly prominent role in his autobiographies. And Greene’s quickness in ending his answer with a brief ‘We were happy’ also seems to suggest a desire to move on, almost as if the memories of that happiness were too painful to bear. So Greene might have unwittingly left us with at least one more possible facet of this ever elusive phenomenon: happiness might be that sensation, which when remembered later, produces a state distinctly unlike it, a mixture of regret, melancholia, and the fear that that sensation will not be experienced again.

Excerpt from: Marie Françoise-Allan, The Other Man: Conversations with Graham Greene, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1983.

Mukul Kesavan on Making the Familiar Strange

Mukul Kesavan concludes a wonderful essay on Lucknow, the English language, Indian writing in English, the Indian summer, and ice-cream with:

[T]the point of writing isn’t to make things familiar; it is to make them strange.

Kesavan is right. To read is a form of escapism and what good would it be if we all we encountered on our reading adventures was more of the mundane? To write too, is a form of escapism, and again, what good would that do if all we felt and experienced through that act was a return to what we had left behind? This departure can, as Graham Greene memorably pointed out, serve as therapeutic relief from what would otherwise be the unmitigated grimness of weekday existence:

Writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose, or paint can manage to escape the madness, melancholia, the panic and fear which is inherent in a human situation. [From: Ways of Escape, Pocket Books, New York, 1980]

Kesavan’s observation alerts us to the fact that in writing, in seeking to describe either the existent, the elapsed, the imaginary or the yet-to-be realized, we seek to go beyond its bare particulars, to dress it up with our words and imagination. But that isn’t all. A good writer sees things we don’t, he is able to match words to objects in ways we can’t. In this new vision, which makes the previously invisible visible, in these new correspondences, which establish unimagined linkages, the familiar becomes strange. This works because the world from day to day is never the world unmediated, raw, unfiltered or ‘given’ or anything like that. It’s already dressed up for us; by the languages we learned, by our histories, our experiences. The writer steps into this neat arrangement and disorders it all. He cannot but if he is any good.

The writer reminds us there are other conceptualizations of the world possible, other ways of drawing meaning from the world’s meaninglessness. The poet, a species of writer, does this in the most radical of ways because he shows us that the language that has served as descriptor and tabulator of the world can itself be drastically reconfigured and pressed into new tasks and responsibilities. This can be captivating and fearful alike. We wonder: how much of the hard-earned and constructed stability of the world, erected as a bulwark against the peculiarity that otherwise peeks at us around its corners, will be diminished by a new description afforded us by a radically different piece of writing? The writer and the poet become peddlers of magic potions, a sip of which induces visions.

This power of the writer is most commonly visible in the novel, of course, but it is perhaps most dramatically visible in the travel essay, written about one’s most familiar habitations, perhaps one’s hometown, by a visitor.  Even the most well-traveled of paths can appear spanking new and mysterious all over again as the traveler fits a new garb to the old land.

Writing Under the Influence: Greene on Benzedrine

Stories of Adderall-inspired writing binges by over-achieving students keen to upstage their cohorts and get the best grades possible are now old hat. And perhaps so are stories of writers fueling (or attempting to fuel) their writing sessions with a variety of intoxicating, calming, inspirational and brain-cobweb clearing substances. These have ranged from the ubiquitous nicotine (cigarettes, the most common of all, said to steady the nerves and enable concentration) to caffeine (to keep awake, to stimulate; most famously employed by Balzac, whose coffee consumption was truly awe-inspiring), alcohol (perhaps to reduce the anxiety associated with the blank page), marijuana (to provoke, hopefully, the odd creative thought or two); the list goes on. (I am not optimistic about the prospects of hearing any success stories associated with alcohol and marijuana when it comes to writing; certainly, in the case of alcohol, it seems to have led to too many careers being derailed.)

At first glance, Graham Greene‘s writing career does not seem to suggest ever having needed chemical stimulation to get the writing engine fired up. He wrote twenty-seven novels, two volumes of verse, four volumes of autobiography, three travel books, eight plays, ten screenplays, four collections of short stories, and four children’s books. But even he sometimes felt the need to dip into the substance reservoir in order to get an ambitious task undertaken.

By 1938, Greene had mastered the art of finishing a novel in less than a year. Still, his earnings from his writing were not enough to take care of a writer with a family that included two children. A commercially successful work was called for, one that would serve as ‘entertainment’ (to use Greene’s own term for the works in his oeuvre he deemed less serious).  Greene had returned from his travels in Mexico, joined the Officers’ Emergency Reserve and was hard at work on The Power and the Glory.

An ambitious plan presented itself: he would write an ‘entertainment’ in the mornings while continuing to work on The Power and the Glory in the afternoons. A studio was rented and work began on The Confidential Agent with Greene suitably fortified:

I fell back for the first and last time in my life on Benzedrine. For six weeks I started each day with a tablet, and renewed the dose at midday. Each day I sat down to work with no idea of what turn the plot might take and each morning I wrote, with the automatism of a planchette, two thousand words instead of my usual stint of five hundred words. In the afternoons, The Power and the Glory proceeded toward its ends at its own leaden pace, unaffected by the sprightly young thing that was overtaking it.

Six weeks to finish a novel at two thousand words a day, while simultaneously working on another novel. The mind boggles. This regime was not without its costs:

I was forcing the pace and I suffered for it. Six weeks of a Benzedrine breakfast diet left my nerves in shreds and my wife suffered the result. At five o’clock I would return home with a shaking hand, a depression which fell with the regularity of a tropical rain, ready to find offense in anything, and to give offense for no cause. For long after the six weeks were over, I had to continue with smaller and smaller doses to break the habit. The career of writing has its own curious forms of hell. Sometimes looking back I think that those Benzedrine weeks were more responsible than the separation of war and my own infidelities for breaking our marriage.

I own a battered paperback copy of The Confidential Agent, which I have not read thus far. When I do, I’ll be especially attentive for any traces of a jittery, wired Greene.

Note: Excerpts from: Graham Greene, Ways of Escape, Pocket Books, New York, 1980, pp. 72-74.

The Autumn as Inducer of Childhood Remembrances

In ‘The Innocent,’ one of the twenty-one short stories in Graham Greene‘s Twenty-One Stories (Penguin, 1970), the narrator of the tale notes,

On an autumn evening, one remembers more of childhood than at any other time of year…

Our hero is correct. Or at least, this rings true to me. Why might that be? Our story-teller does not say any more, leaving us to entertain our own hypotheses at leisure.

So, autumn evenings. The light changes–in the right latitudes, quite dramatically–, the shadows’ contours transform, the trees morph, chameleon-like, through several shades of foliage–and again, in the right latitudes, exquisitely, leaving most of us grasping for the right verbal arsenal to do justice to their beauty. The heat of the summer drops off; there are hints of it in the high afternoon in the early part of the autumn, but the mornings and evenings bring subtle, and sometimes not-so-subtle hints of the coming chill. (Here on the American East Coast, these changes are vividly manifest every year.)

Now, of all these changes, I think the crucial one, the one that sparks our narrator’s rumination above, is the changing light. And that is because I think that when we recall our childhood, we conjure up images bathed in a particular light; the chambers of that nostalgia have their own peculiar illumination, one writ into the deepest recesses of our memories by our infant encounters with the sunlight of our homelands. The change of summer light into the autumn shadings, which produces its own melancholia, is also thus the trigger for the release of these memories and their associations.

All of this makes my personal resonance with the line above a little peculiar. I live on the American East Coast but my childhood was spent in India, where the light is very different. And one of the primary drivers of my often-desperate urge to return to India is to feel the Indian light again, to feel the sun’s rays–and they can be harsh, let me tell you–fall on my skin, my eyes, and evoke, somehow, in some cranial cranny, a treasured image, sound or smell, that by dint of my usual geographical location, has become too deeply buried and inaccessible.  (Years ago, after I first moved to Australia, my good friend Eric Martin–a migrant from France and mathematical logician par excellence–said to me that one of the most important determinants in memories of homelands being perennially prickly companions of the immigrant was the light of his erstwhile home, impressed permanently into his traveling self.)

But even for an immigrant like me, one who now spends his life moving in a chamber lit by a very different lamp, all that is needed for the recall of childhood is the melancholia that floods in with the softer light; as that mood surfaces, the mind senses the light as the cause, and the most fundamental of the exile’s thoughts are pushed to the forefront: remembrances of lands and times long gone.

Small wonder then, that the autumn, even though formerly associated with festivals and the welcoming of the rejuvenating winter after the enervating summer, and now with heralding the icy East Coast winter, still retains its ability to take me back to that place in the mind.