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.

What the Brain Can Tell Us About Art (and Literature)

In ‘What the Brain Can Tell Us About Art‘ (New York Times, April 12, 2013), Eric R. Kandel writes:

Alois Riegl….understood that art is incomplete without the perceptual and emotional involvement of the viewer. Not only does the viewer collaborate with the artist in transforming a two-dimensional likeness on a canvas into a three-dimensional depiction of the world, the viewer interprets what he or she sees on the canvas in personal terms, thereby adding meaning to the picture….In addition to our built-in visual processes, each of us brings to a work of art our acquired memories: we remember other works of art that we have seen. We remember scenes and people that have meaning to us and relate the work of art to those memories. In order to see what is painted on a canvas, we have to know beforehand what we might see in a painting. These insights into perception served as a bridge between the visual perception of art and the biology of the brain.

Kande’s focus in his article is on visual art, but these considerations apply equally to the printed word. Here are the passages excerpted above with very slight emendation:

Literature is incomplete without the perceptual and emotional involvement of the viewer. Not only does the reader  collaborate with the author in transforming two-dimensional printed words on a page into an imaginative depiction of the world, the reader interprets what he or she sees on the page canvas in personal terms, thereby adding meaning to the text….In addition to our acquired reading abilities, each of us brings to a work of literature our acquired memories: we remember other works of literature that we have seen. We remember scenes and people who have meaning to us and relate the work of literature to those memories. In order to read what is printed on a page on a page, we have to know beforehand what we might read in the text.

So, we get the collaborative theory of the reader: a literary work is brought to life by the reader, it acquires meaning in the act of reading.  This ensures that the work serves as raw material for an act of active engagement with the reader, who brings a history of reading, a corpus of memories, and thus, an inclination and disposition toward the text. The more you read, the more you bring to every subsequent act of reading; the more you engage with humans, the more varied the archetypes and templates of the human experience you have playing in your mind as you read.

The classic work then, which endures over time and acquires a new set of readers in each successive generation, becomes so because it remains reinterpretable on an ongoing basis; newer bodies of text and human histories surround it and it acquires new meanings from them.  We are still unable to analyze this phenomenon, to determine what makes a particular text receptive to such reimaginings over time; its success is the only indicator it has what it takes to acquire the status of a classic.

The Sidewalk Book Disposal Scheme

New York has lots of books: in stores, libraries, shelves in private collections, sidewalk sales, and sometimes, in boxes on sidewalks, being given away, with or without a sign that says ‘help yourself.’ These books have been abandoned; their former owners do not have the space (or time) for them any more.  Perhaps a move is in the offing and a ruthless culling is called for, perhaps tastes have changed. They have not earned the privilege of a yard sale; rather, they are to be consigned quickly into the custody of a stranger for free. Take my book(s), please. I have never walked past such an offering without stopping. Who knows what goodies might lurk there? Human nature being what it is, my initial reaction is also invariably tinged with the slightest touch of suspicion: exactly why are these tomes being given away for free? But then I remember this city’s brutal space crunch, and my attitude softens just a bit: they’ve just happened to lose out in the relentless competition, the nonstop jostling for a home in a New York apartment. That battle for space has caused relationships to come apart, small wonder that books sometimes bear the brunt of the space manager’s machinations.

So, I stop, and look, and search. Many books are old and tattered; the reasons for their disposal are all too apparent. (I have disposed of many well-worn veterans too, though I have always handed them over to my neighborhood used bookseller, unable to leave them exposed to the elements.) Some are textbooks; their owner has presumably graduated or dropped out. Some are bestsellers; perhaps flavors of the day unlikely to endure as classics. Some are well-worn classics, perhaps easily replaceable because they will never go out of print. (My battered copy of War and Peace, a book I rather stupidly bought as a paperback will meet this fate someday; I will replace it with a hardcover at that point.) Sometimes, it is apparent an academic has cleansed his shelves; monographs bought in a rash moment of excessive ambition, never read, now face the prospect of tantalizing someone else with their promise of the esoteric. (Some of the books on the shelves in my university office will go out this way.) A special category all by itself is the cookbook and the self-help book; these show up with interesting regularity in sidewalk disposals; tastes change and so do one’s aspirations, I suppose.

Over the past couple of years most of my pickups have taken place on the same three-block stretch in Park Slope in Brooklyn, as I walk to and from my gym. (Some of my procurements have been real scores, yet others have made it home with me because the price has been right.) There doesn’t seem to have been any significant slowing of the pace of disposals, a clear indication that life in that part of Brooklyn is proceeding normally.

But as the digital book becomes ever more ubiquitous, it might displace the sidewalk disposal as well. Then, a mere drag to the Recycle Bin will do, with no need for a display of old-fashioned generosity. No more sidewalk pickups then.

Shakespeare, Drayton, and Birdsong, Then and Now

In his The Life and Times of William Shakespeare, Peter Levi wrote,

[H]istory and family connection do as much to throw light on Shakespeare as a poet as academic criticism has done, and maybe more. The problem is that England and Stratford and the Elizabethan age are all somehow part of his great mystery, and all three are potently mythical. Every generation has to make its own attempt to get at the truth, and we shall not succeed unless we allow for the enormous differences that separate Shakespeare from our own world. Even the theatre…is ours and not his, and therefore a barrier as well as a link.

I want to put Shakespeare’s poetry in the context of his life and times.

As part of this putting-in-context, Levi attempts to describe, among other things, places and settings, Straford-upon-Avon, relying on contemporary descriptions. This leads him, to what, I think, is a particularly vivid and colorful description of one of the many differences between that time and ours.

In Chapter One, ‘The Background’, Levi draws on Michael Drayton‘s descriptions of Warwickshire in his ‘epic poem Poly-Olbion, one ‘worth a glance, because people sometimes imagine that Shakespeare, as a lyric poet, exaggerated the natural qualities of the place.’  But Levi doubts ‘Drayton wrote under his influence, being a Warwickshire man himself and having all England to cover.’  He goes on to note his ‘shaggy , warm-hearted feelings’ about the land, as evinced in the Forest’s speech about herself:

We equally partake with woodland as with plain
Alike with hill and dale; and every day maintain
The sundry kinds of beasts upon our copious wastes,
That men for profit bread, as well as those of chase.
Here Arden of herself ceased any more to show; 
And with her sylvan joys the Muse along doth go
When Phoebus lifts his head out of the Winter’s wave
No sooner the Earth her flowery bosom brave,
At such time as the year brings on the pleasant Spring, 
But Hunts-up the morn the feather’d Sylvans spring
And in the lower grove, as on the rising knole,
Upon the highest spray of every mounting pole, 
Those Quiristers are perched with many a speckled breast. 

Levi then goes on to note:

The verses about birdsong that follow are as clear and loud as the birds themselves. We must realize that it was ordinary for Drayton and Shakespeare to hear a dawn chorus of many hundreds of birds at once, and ordinary in summer to hear nightingales. Those were numerous in the elm avenues of Christ Church Meadow even in the late nineteenth century; as a young man thirty years ago, I have heard a deafening dawn chorus in the wooded Chilterns, on Shakespeare’s road to London.

When I read these pages, I was struck by how absent birdsong is in our cities, our modern lives, how it has been banished to ever more remote removes from our mornings. But sometimes, when I walk to work, as I have for the past six years, I walk past a colony of parrots–on which I intend to write a longer post someday–noisily and merrily raising a racket, and for a moment or two, I feel comforted, by this visible and loud reminder of the persistence and resilience of aviary sounds in our urban environs.

‘The Master’: Coming Undone And Putting It Back Together

One way to ‘read’ Paul Thomas Anderson‘s The Master is as an enormously ambitious, technically brilliant cinematic riff on Ron Hubbard and Scientology, on a time fertile for cults and messianic healing: post-WWII America, when broken men–post-traumatic stress disorder is as old as war–drifted back home, and were, just as many other Americans, looking for meaning and succor in a world that, for some six years or so, seemed to have gone collectively mad.

In this reading, Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffmann) and Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) are paradigmatic representatives of these two components of America: the healers and their patients. Their lives intertwine, they take from, and give to, each other, and then, they carry on, bearing the impress of each other’s presence in their lives. Dodd and his Cause serve as a showcase for many of the curious ironies of cult-based healing: that it may introduce greater dangers into the lives of those it claims to mend and repair, that the healers seem as much in need of cures as those they lay their hands on, that in healing the world, they first corrupt and disillusion those closest to them, that nowhere else is enlightenment as murky as in the words and actions of those who claim to pursue truth and eternal being beneath the superficial appearance of endlessly becoming things. (Given these ironies, it is no surprise that Dodd’s persona includes a volatile temper and a fondness for foul cocktails.)

But the story of Lancaster Dodd and the Cause is not just about irony, not just about ostensibly manipulative, dishonest, self-aggrandizing cults. It is also about story-telling and memory, about how we seek the key to the present and future in the past, how therapeutic interventions of many different stripes–sometimes art, sometimes psychoanalysis–converge on narratives and imagination. Dodd puts his patients on a couch (conjuring up visions of Viennese chambers) and invites them to travel back in time to seek clues to unlocking the mysteries of their perplexities; these performances are, unsurprisingly, subject to skepticism from stranger and family alike. But Freddie Quell’s life and his treatment show us that in fact, these past lives may not lie as far back as the skeptics imagine. For our  personas are always a sensitive and delicate balancing of the many lives that make them up. The coherent self we present–if we are lucky and skilled enough to do so–is an acutely controlled, finely tensed, dynamic equilibrium of these. Thanks to his traumatic childhood, a broken heart and an estranged sweetheart, a long, bloody war, sexual frustration, and alcoholism, Freddie has come undone; the Cause can perhaps, by making him revisit and reinterpret these sites of disruption, make him cohere again. The Cause can also, as Anderson sometimes seems to suggest, add more incoherence.

If in the end, ‘The Master’ is perplexing for some, it is because of the usual reasons: there are no straightforward resolutions, no neat endings. But in doing so, it might also pose the very sense-making challenge that confronts its central characters: of imposing structure on a series of striking, sometimes shocking, always affecting images and experiences.

Mary McCarthy on Madame Bovary as Neurotic

Among the most famous descriptions of Emma Bovary are Mary McCarthy‘s cutting lines:

[She] is a very ordinary middle-class woman, with banal expectations of life and an urge to dominate her surroundings. Her character is remarkable only for an unusual deficiency of natural feeling.


But what follows these lines is a perhaps more interesting set of observations:

Emma is trite; what happens to her is trite.  Her story does not hold a single surprise for the reader, who can say at every stage, ‘I felt it coming.’ Her end is inevitable, but not as a classic doom, which is perceived as inexorable only when it is complete. It is inevitable because it is ordinary. Anyone could have prophesied what would become of Emma–her mother-in-law for instance. It did not need a Tiresias. If you compare her story with that of Anna Karenina, you are aware of the pathos of Emma’s. Anna is never pathetic; she is tragic, and what happens to her, up to the very end, is always surprising, for real passions and moral strivings are at work, which have the power of ‘making it new.’ In this her story is distinct from an ordinary society scandal of the period. Nor could any ordinary society prophet have forecast Anna’s fate. ‘He will get tired her and leave her,’ they would have said of Vronsky. He did not. But Rodolphe could have been counted on to drop Emma, and Leon to grow frightened of her and bored.

Where destiny is no more than average probability, it appears inescapable in a particularly depressing way. This is because any element in it can be replaced by a substitute without changing the outcome; e.g., if Rodolphe had not materialized, Emma would have found someone else. But if Anna had not met Vronsky on the train, she would still be married to Karenin. Vronsky is necessary, whereas Rodolphe and Leon are interchangeable parts in a machine that is engaged in mass production of human fates.

This is certainly an acute way to capture the contrast between a tragic fate and a merely pathetic one. It also, quite perspicuously, makes us cast Anna Karenina as the heroine of an existential drama, one not driven to her destiny, but one who remains in command till her tragic end. Societal compulsions may seem to have exerted inexorable pressure on her life, and made it hew to a precise trajectory, but as McCarthy notes, there remains a great deal of surprise to be found in each fork of the path she traveled. This sense of surprise ensures Anna Karenina works as a suspenseful novel; we are aware of tragedy looming, but still unclear about its exact contours. Of course, even in Emma’s case, her ‘end’ is not precisely determined, but that she would be forever condemned to her relentless, misery-making dissatisfaction seems preordained. In so doing, Emma resembles nothing as much as Freud‘s neurotics, destined to endlessly, helplessly, repeat a recurring pattern, and indeed, finding their only comfort in its reenactments.

Note: Excerpts from the 1964 Signet Classic edition of Madame Bovary featuring a translation by Mildred Marmur, a foreword by Mary McCarthy and excerpts from Gustave Flaubert‘s trial on obscenity charges in 1857.

One Read, Another One Beckons. What Could Be Simpler? Or So You’d Think

It never gets old: I still get a thrill out of finishing one book, and then walking over to my book shelves to pick out the next one to be read.  There are many unread tomes in there; who knows what pleasures lurk in them, waiting to be delved into, savored, and hopefully, treasured for a while?

The selection process is always, though, a little anxiety-ridden. Part of the burden of being an academic is that despite my best intentions, I often find myself making a distinction between reading for ‘pleasure’ and reading for ‘work’: some books are part of my supposed ‘research’, while others are seem like merely dilettantish indulgences. This leads, unfortunately, to a tension: do I have time to spare for ‘light’ reading when so much else remains to be read in domains that are supposedly my central intellectual passion? Am I slacking off by diverting my attention elsewhere? (In my graduate school days, I remember many fellow students saying they had stopped reading fiction for this reason.)

This is a silly distinction, of course, precisely because the books I read that are not part of any academic project of mine still inform my work: they enable the formation and appreciation of different perspectives and approaches to material ostensibly subject to paradigmatic readings. More to the point, it seems like I have imposed some horribly spartan vision of life upon myself, an austerity that seems impoverished more than anything else.

But having said that, another related burden of the academic life imposes itself. Does my reading, the part that isn’t within the ambit of an ongoing intellectual project, have to possess a certain minimal gravitas? Or can I slack off a bit, perhaps go a little ‘pop’? I suspect the same response as above holds.

These questions answered, I can move on to the next round. What comes next? Books that have been virgin for all too long? I can see unread books on my shelf dating back to purchases made in 1998. Are there books that are losing their topicality? I see an unread book on Chechnya in there. Yup, one of the 1998 ones. Should I read a book that will form an organic connection with the one I’ve just finished? This sort of selection happens quite naturally when, for lack of a better description, I find myself ‘going through a phase.’ Sometimes, I am keen to get rid of a book from my shelf because it is falling apart or because it wasn’t destined to be a long-term resident anyway. Here, I haven’t lost my desire to read it, but I am not interested in holding on to it for too long. The best thing to do under these circumstances is to read it and pass it back into circulation. Provided, of course, that it can undergo such a journey. Many books that I have picked up from garage sales or from Brooklyn-stoop-giveaways fall into this category.

And then, finally, sadly, once in a while, I come across a book that I realize I will never read; its time has passed, my interests have changed, and I cannot foresee my inclinations turning toward it ever again. Then, I take it down, set it aside ruefully, consoling myself that a slot has opened up for a new resident of my bookish world.