07 May 2013

Reading Still and Active

I am always a bit troubled by an author’s use in autobiography or memoir of the second and third person self-referential pronouns, as does Jeanette Winterson when she states in her memoir Why Be Normal When You Can Be Happy? how reading facts is of little value to “your” life.  I think that this custom of employing the second person is a normalizing ploy that pins me to the author’s consciousness and defines me as identical to the author; or else the use of the third person is a narrative self-alienating device that presumes a measure of objectivity (as in Paul Auster’s Winter Journal), or becomes a mask to assumes an invisibility, as in Salman Rushdie’s Joseph Anton: A Memoir. Nevertheless, I do tend to agree with Winterson (which is why I have written her words in my journal) that facts offer me little insight into my life.  My life is not the concatenation of facts, but becomes, instead, the responses to the events I refer to as facts. Reading awakens my responses and when all goes well calls up emotions and feelings I forgot that I remembered. Winterson writes, “We bury things so deep we no longer remember there was anything to bury. Our bodies remember. Our neurotic states remember. But we don’t” (162). Now, I prefer not to separate my body from my self, and I discount the presence of some homunculus that assumes the task of concealing that which we prefer not to view. I like to think that we are always our neurotic states.  Czeslaw Milosz writes in his memoir, Native Realm, “Certain periods of our lives are difficult to remember. They are like the jumbled dreams out of whose obscure depths only one ore two details emerge clearly. This means we have not mastered our material and insofar as the past is at all decipherablehave not deciphered its hidden contents.” Milosz and Winterson suggest to me that it is only hubris that leads me to trust the facts as my sole resource for understanding my self and my world. In “the Hedgehog and the Fox,” Isaiah Berlin, in his essay exploring Tolstoy’s theory of history, a theory with which I think Berlin has great sympathy, says that Tolstoy acknowledges that we are all

immersed and submerged in a medium that, precisely to the degree to which we inevitably take it for granted as part of ourselves, we do not and cannot observe as if from the outside; cannot identify, measure and seek to manipulate, cannot even be wholly aware of, too closely interwoven with all that we are and do to be lifted out of the flow . . . and observed with scientific detachment, as an object. Itthe medium in which we aredetermines our more permanent categories, our standards of truth and falsehood, and the peripheral, of the subjective and the objective of the beautiful and the ugly, of movement and rest, of past, present and future, of one and many; hence, neither these, nor any other explicitly conceived categories or concepts, can be applied to it . . .
The facts offer limited knowledge. Tolstoy was aware of the “sheer de facto difference which divide and forces which disrupt the human world [and was] utterly incapable of being deceived by the many subtle devices, the unifying systems and faiths and sciences, by which the superficial and desperate sought to conceal the chaos from themselves and from one another.
Literature offers to me an alternative perspective. Milosz says, “It is enough that we realize to what extent thought and word are incommensurable with reality. Then it is possible to set one’s limits consciously.” To know for sure is to surely not know. In Philip Roth’s The Human Stain, Nathan Zuckerman furtively observes Faunia and Coleman at a concert and intuits that Coleman had told Faunia, his lover, the great secret he has trusted to no one else. Zuckerman writes: “How do I know she knew? I don’t. I couldn’t know that either. I can’t know. Now that they’re dead, nobody can know. For better or worse, I can only do what everyone does who think they now. I imagine. I am forced to imagine. It happens to be what I do for a living. It is my job.” So is it with me: I am driven to the book by not knowing, for though I know I cannot know, I can imagine. To imagine is why I read.


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