"One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture
and, if possible, speak a few reasonable words." ~Goethe

~ also, if possible, to dwell in "a house where all's accustomed, ceremonious." ~Yeats

Friday, June 14, 2019

From the Desk of Simone de Beauvoir: On the Side of Happiness

Re-creation of Simoine de Beauvoir's Study
Spring 2017 Installation at the
The National Museum for Women in the Arts

Last month, I counted myself fortunate to see the writing desk of Ernest Hemingway, in Havana. Every nook and cranny of his Cuban villa remains much as he left it in 1960 -- or has been staged to re-create the mood of the prolific writer's life. Gazing at his wall - to - wall - floor - to - ceiling book collection and his desks and tables covered with books, pipes, pens and papers, reminded me (not that I had actually forgotten) that a couple of years ago I was also lucky enough to see the re-imagined writing desk of Simone de Beauvoir, another prolific 20th Century writer and reader.

You might recall that when asked "Do you suffer when you write?" Hemingway replied, Not at all, only when I don't write, but I "never feel as good as while writing." Similarly, one of de Beauvoir's short story narrators describes her plans to "do a little work during the holidays," despite the shortage of time: "It is not a matter of energy . . . I just could not live without writing. . . . When I was a child, when I was an adolescent, books saved me from despair: that convinced me that culture was the highest of values, and it is impossible for me to examine this conviction with an objective eye" (22, "The Age of Discretion" in The Woman Destroyed, 1967).

As Jane Smiley says in Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel: “Many people, myself among them, feel better at the mere sight of a book." I suppose that could mean almost any book, but what a specific comfort, indeed, to see this old familiar copy of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women on the de Beauvoir's desktop (below). Apparently, as a girl, young Simone loved Little Women -- especially Jo, the writer! -- as much as I did. In another of Alcott's girlhood novels, An Old-Fashioned Girl, Polly earnestly explains that "Help one another is part of the religion of our sisterhood" -- a mandate carried out in the written work of both Alcott and de Beauvoir.

In The Second Sex (1949), de Beauvoir's comprehensive classic, she discusses "the treatment of women throughout history," a variety of gender roles designated fairly or not by nature, society, literature, politics; the basics of female sexuality; and the development of women through every phase of the human life cycle. She writes poignantly of a young woman's struggle to form a creative identity for herself:
“When she does not find love, she may find poetry. Because she does not act, she observes, she feels, she records; a color, a smile awakens profound echoes within her; her destiny is outside her, scattered in cities already built, on the faces of men already marked by life, she makes contact, she relishes with passion and yet in a manner more detached, more free, than that of a young man. Being poorly integrated in the universe of humanity and hardly able to adapt herself therein, she, like the child, is able to see it objectively; instead of being interested solely in her grasp on things, she looks for their significance; she catches their special outlines, their unexpected metamorphoses. She rarely feels a bold creativeness, and usually she lacks the technique of self-expression; but in her conversation, her letters, her literary essays, her sketches, she manifests an original sensitivity. The young girl throws herself into things with ardor, because she is not yet deprived of her transcendence; and the fact that she accomplishes nothing, that she is nothing, will make her impulses only the more passionate. Empty and unlimited, she seeks from within her nothingness to attain All” (374).

― from The Second Sex
Volume 2: "Lived Experience"
Part 1: "Formative Years"
Chapter 2: "The Girl"
If you don't have time right now to read the entire 800 pages of de Beauvoir's feminist history, philosophy, and psychology, you can start with the handy Extracts, barely 100 pages, light enough to carry anywhere, perfect for airplane reading. Look closely (both here & above), and you'll glimpse a copy in the bottom desk drawer:

Simone de Beauvoir's own eloquent,
inspiring description of her life's work:
. . . But at least I helped the women of my time and generation to become aware of themselves and their situation.

Many of them, of course, disapproved of my book; I disturbed them or opposed them or exasperated them or frightened them. But there were others to whom I did some service, as I know from numberless testimonies to the fact, especially from the letters that I am still receiving and answering after twelve years. These women have found help in my work in their fight against images of themselves which revolted them, against myths by which they felt themselves crushed; they came to realize that their difficulties reflected not a disgrace peculiar to them, but a general condition. This discovery helped them to avoid the mistake of self-contempt, and many of them found in the book the strength to fight against that condition. Self-knowledge is no guarantee of happiness, but it is on the side of happiness and can supply the courage to fight for it. Psychiatrists have told me that they give The Second Sex to their women patients to read, and not merely to intellectual women but to lower-middle-class women, to office workers and women working in factories. "Your book was a great help to me. Your book saved me," are the words I have read in letters from women of all ages and all walks of life.

If my book has helped women, it is because it expressed them, and they in their turn gave it its truth. Thanks to them, it is no longer a matter for scandal and concern. During these last ten years the myths that men created have crumbled, and many women writers have gone beyond me and have been far more daring than I. Too many of them for my taste take sexuality as their only theme; but at least when they write about it they now present themselves as the eye-that-looks, as subject, consciousness, freedom.

I should have been surprised and even irritated if, when I was thirty, someone had told me that I would be concerning myself with feminine problems, and that my most serious public would be made up of women. I don’t regret that it has been so. Divided, lacerated, in a world made to put them at a disadvantage, for women there are far more victories to be won, more prizes to be gained, more defeats to he suffered than there are for men. I have an interest in them; and I prefer having taken a limited but real hold upon the world through them to drifting in the universal.

Yes, this she has done.
Thank you Simone de Beauvoir!

― From Force of Circumstances:The Autobiography
of Simone de Beauvoir [1908 - 1986], Vol. III
Sometimes published in two parts:
After the War: 1944-1952 & Hard Times: 1952-1962

― See also
Vol. I ― Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter (1958)
Vol. II ― The Prime of Life (1960)
Vol. IV ― All Said And Done (1972)
All translated by Richard Howard
An Overview: “From the Desk of Simone de Beauvoir”

Next Fortnightly Post
Friday, June 28th

Between now and then, read
my shorter, almost daily blog posts

Looking for a good book? Try
my running list of recent reading

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

From the Desk of Ernest Hemingway: "But never feel as good as while writing."

"And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee
~ John Donne


Finca Vigía
pronounced feen-ca vee-hee-a
meaning Lookout Farm
now a museum
once the home of Ernest Hemingway (1899 - 1961)
where he lived off and on between 1939 - 1960
writing segments of For Whom the Bell Tolls (1939 - 40)
and The Old Man and the Sea (1951)
in rural Havana, Cuba
about 15 miles from the City Center

Over the decades, there has been serious concern about the condition of Finca Vigía and the many priceless books and manuscripts housed there. Thanks to joint efforts between Cuba and the United States, the estate is now a living history museum, carefully preserved down to the finest detail. Each room has become a time capsule, seemingly undisturbed since Hemingway's last day there, back in July of 1960. Gerry and I were fortunate to see the Hemingway house / musuem last month, when we were docked in Havana for twenty - four hours as part of a Norweigian Cruise -- before the recently re - instated, travel restrictions severely and unnecessarily curtailed this international opportunity for so many curious Americans.

Still awaiting renovation & water, the elegant pool
at Finca Vigía, on a beautiful spring day:

One room just for writing:

Another just for reading:

Where Hemingway Sat!

Some Reading & Writing
Advice from Hemingway
Books should be about the people you know, that you love and hate, not about the people you study up about. If you write them truly they will have all the economic implications a book can hold.

In the meantime, since it is Christmas, if you want to read a book by a man who knows exactly what he is writing about and has written it marvelously well, read Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara.

Then when you have more time read another book called War and Peace by Tolstoi and see how you will have to skip the big Political Thought passages, that he undoubtedly thought were the best things in the book when he wrote it, because they are no longer either true or important, if they ever were more than topical, and see how true and lasting and important the people and the action are. Do not let them deceive you about what a book should be because of what is in the fashion now. All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you; the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse, and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was. If you can get so that you can give that to people, then you are a writer.

from "Old Newsman Writes: A Letter from Cuba"
in Esquire (December 1934)


The individual, the great artist when he comes, uses everything that has been discovered or known about his art up to that point, being able to accept or reject in a time so short it seems that the knowledge was born with him, rather than that he takes instantly what it takes the ordinary man a lifetime to know, and then the great artist goes beyond what has been done or known and makes something of his own.

. . . all stories, if continued far enough, end in death, and . . . no true-story teller . . . would keep that from you.

from Chapter 9 of Death in the Afternoon (1932)


I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious and sacrifice and the expression in vain. We had heard them, sometimes standing in the rain almost out of earshot, so that only the shouted words came through, and had read them, on proclamations that were slapped up by billposters over other proclamations, now for a long time, and I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it.
from Chapter 11 of A Farewell to Arms (1929)


Click for more Hemingway Quotes
For example:

"My attitude toward punctuation is that
it ought to be as conventional as possible. . . .
You ought to be able to show that you can do it
a good deal better than anyone else with the regular tools
before you have a license to bring in your own improvements."


"Do you suffer when you write? I don't at all.
Suffer like a bastard when don't write, or just before,
and feel empty and f----d out afterwards.
But never feel as good as while writing."

Next Fortnightly Post
Friday, June 14th

Between now and then, read
my shorter, almost daily blog posts

Looking for a good book? Try
my running list of recent reading

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

The Painting's the Thing Wherein


Nighthawks (1942)
by Edward Hopper (1882 - 1967)

More relative than this: the play's the thing
Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king
― William Shakespeare ~ Hamlet 2, 2, 605-06

Could it also be that the painting's the thing
wherein we'll catch the consciousness of the nation?

I recently heard a speaker designate Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks" (above), along with Grant Wood's "American Gothic," and Andrew Wyeth's "Christina's World" (below) as the most iconic paintings in the United States.

American Gothic (1930)
by Grant Wood (1891 - 1942)

Christina's World (1948)
by Andrew Wyeth (1917 - 2007)

In First Impressions: Andrew Wyeth, biographer Richard Meryman adds two names to the list. According to Meryman, by the mid 1960's, Christina's World joined not only American Gothic but also Whistler's Mother and Gilbert Stuart's Portrait of George Washington -- to become "one of America's four most indelible images."
Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1:
Whistler's Mother
James McNeill Whistler (1834 - 1903)

Portrait of George Washington (1796)
by Gilbert Stuart (1755 – 1828)

It is not unreasonable that some art critics, scholars, and connoisseurs might modify this group of five in one way or another. Still it's a fair sampling of images that collectively capture the spirit and history of the United States. I spent a few days musing over what favorites or classics I might chose. Looking at this core collection, what might I add or subtract or replace? I see such severity here, and a persistent theme of isolation: in the city, in the country, in infirmity, in old age, even in greatness.

The next thing I knew -- coincidence! -- I came across a short list of British paintings, also intended to speak for the heart and soul of a nation. In Kate Atkinson's novel Life After Life, set in World War II London, a neighborhood bomb shelter has been decorated by kindly neighbors. Perhaps the theme here is "if only we weren't at war":
"Mr. Miller, in an effort to make the cellar 'homely' (something it could never be), had taped some reproductions of 'great English art,' as he called it, against the sandbagged walls. These color plates -- The Haywain, Gainsborough's Mr. and Mrs. Andrews (how smug they looked) and Bubbles (the most sickly Millais possible, in Ursula's opinion) -- looked suspiciously as if they had been pilfered from expensive reference books on art. 'Culture,' Mr. Miller said, nodding sagely. Ursula wondered what she would have chosen to represent 'great English art.' Turner perhaps, the smudged, fugitive content of the late works. Not to the Millers' taste at all, she suspected." (279)
The Hay Wain (1821)
by John Constable (1776 – 1837)

Mr and Mrs Andrews (1750)
by Thomas Gainsborough (1727 - 1788)

Bubbles, originally titled A Child's World (1886)
John Everett Millais (1829 - 1896)

Knowing how popular these artists are, and how easily recognized their paintings, it's not surprising that several have appeared in previous Fortnightlies and Quotidians:
Hopper: Surface Dwellers
Whistler: Post Mother's Day, Raoul & Marguerite
Wood: American / British / Indiana Gothic
Andrew Wyeth: Saving the River Babies
and also his father, N. C. Wyeth: He Said She Said.
John Everett Millais: Sweet Basil, Ancestors, Love Is Not All
Had we but world enough and time, we could look at a thousand different paintings, and then a thousand more. But for today, we have eight representations -- five American standards, three British standards -- of civilization and imagination. What do these classic artworks say about which exterior and interior landscapes have embedded themselves in our memories and why? Do they depict a quest or an ideal just out of reach, a life that we crave; or one that we fear; or a realilty that we readily / resignedly accept as ours? One way or another, the painting's the thing wherein, century after century, we'll catch a glimpse of our dreams, both good and bad.

Next Fortnightly Post
Tuesday, May 28th

Between now and then, read
THE QUOTIDIAN KIT ~ See related post: "Getting to the Truth"
my shorter, almost daily blog posts

Looking for a good book? Try
my running list of recent reading

Sunday, April 28, 2019

An Egg for Arbor Day

"Capsula Mundi is a cultural and broad-based project, which envisions a different approach to the way we think about death. It's an egg-shaped pod, an ancient and perfect form, made of biodegradable material, where our departed loved ones are placed for burial. . . . The Capsula will then be buried as a seed in the earth."
With Easter (April 21), Earth Day (April 22), and Arbor Day (April 26, 2019)
all taking place last week, it seems the perfect time to learn

More about burial pods:
Business Insider


More on the general topic of burial:
From Here to Eternity:
Traveling the World to Find the Good Death

by Caitlin Doughty
"Adults who are racked with death anxiety are not odd birds who have contracted some exotic disease, but men and women whose family and culture have failed to knit the proper protective clothing for them to withstand the icy chill of mortality."

~ Irvin D. Yalom, psychiatrist and professor ~
(b June 13, 1931)

"The ritual doesn't involve sneaking into a cemetery in the dead of night to peek in on a mummy. The ritul involves pulling someone I loved, and thus my grief, out into the light of day. . . . No matter what it takes, the hard work begins for the West to haul our fear, shame, and grief surrounding death out into the disinfecting light of the sun."

~ Caitlin Doughty, author, mortician, Good Death Advocate ~
(b August 19, 1984)

Stained Glass Dome ~Driehaus Museum ~ Chicago

Movies about Emily Dickinson:
The Belle of Amherst, 1976
A Quiet Passion, 2016
Wild Nights with Emily, 2018

Poem by Emily Dickinson
Sic transit gloria mundi
["Thus passes the glory of the world"]

"Sic transit gloria mundi,"
"How doth the busy bee,"
"Dum vivimus vivamus,"
I stay mine enemy! —

Oh "veni, vidi, vici!"
Oh caput cap-a-pie!
And oh "memento mori"
When I am far from thee!

Hurrah for Peter Parley!
Hurrah for Daniel Boone!
Three cheers, sir, for the gentleman
Who first observed the moon!

Peter, put up the sunshine;
Pattie, arrange the stars;
Tell Luna, tea is waiting,
And call your brother Mars!

Put down the apple, Adam,
And come away with me,
So shalt thou have a pippin
From off my father's tree!

I climb the "Hill of Science,"
I "view the landscape o'er;"
Such transcendental prospect,
I ne'er beheld before!

Unto the Legislature
My country bids me go;
I'll take my india rubbers,
In case the wind should blow!

During my education,
It was announced to me
That gravitation, stumbling
Fell from an apple tree!

The earth upon an axis
Was once supposed to turn,
By way of a gymnastic
In honor of the sun!

It was the brave Columbus,
A sailing o'er the tide,
Who notified the nations
Of where I would reside!

Mortality is fatal—
Gentility is fine,
Rascality, heroic,
Insolvency, sublime

Our Fathers being weary,
Laid down on Bunker Hill;
And tho' full many a morning,
Yet they are sleeping still,—

The trumpet, sir, shall wake them,
In dreams I see them rise,
Each with a solemn musket
A marching to the skies!

A coward will remain, Sir,
Until the fight is done;
But an immortal hero
Will take his hat, and run!

Good bye Sir, I am going;
My country calleth me;
Allow me, Sir, at parting,
To wipe my weeping e'e.

In token of our friendship
Accept this "Bonnie Doon,"
And when the hand that plucked it
Hath passed beyond the moon,

The memory of my ashes
Will consolation be;
Then farewell Tuscarora,
And farewell, Sir, to thee!


The Glory of the World!

Next Fortnightly Post
Tuesday, May 14th

Between now and then, read
THE QUOTIDIAN KIT ~ See related post: E is for Earth, Easter, Eggs
my shorter, almost daily blog posts

Looking for a good book? Try
my running list of recent reading

Sunday, April 14, 2019

No Bigger Than a Peanut


Unicef Photograph ~ Odesa, Ukraine

"Boxes within boxes, dolls within dolls, worlds within worlds.
Everything was connected. Everything in the whole world."


What a good turn of events it was for me to receive a copy of Kate Atkinson's novel -- One Good Turn: A Jolly Murder Mystery -- as a souvenir of Edinburgh from Gerry's Cousin Jonny. I had watched a few seasons of Case Histories, the British crime drama set and filmed in Edinburgh; but this was my first time sitting down to actually read one of the Jackson Brodie mysteries upon which the series is based. One Good Turn turns out to be the kind of thriller that you start reading on one day and finish the next, with only a few brief hours of sleep in between.

In addition to the primary investigation, numerous distracting and entertaining subplots captured my attention: the Edinburgh Festival playing around the clock, a dear old cat named Jellybean, sadly, in failing health, and -- most intriguing of all -- a set of nesting Russian dolls whose presence in the text provide a constant reminder of hidden worlds and secrets.

Introductory Montage & Theme Song: Case Histories

When the character Martin Canning, a successful author of crime novels, becomes involved in a real crime, he peers into the travel bag of the mysterious man whose life he has inadvertently saved:
"He had seen inside the bag and there was nothing that revealed anything about Paul Bradley, just a black plastic box, a mystery within a mystery. Perhaps the box would contain another box, and inside that box another box, and so on, like the Russian dolls. Like his own Russian dolls, the prelude to his brief courtship and consummation with the girl from the matryoshka stall."
(One Good Turn 155 - 56)
I myself have long been a student and a collector of matryoshki, and once upon a time totally immersed myself in Susan Stewart's cultural study On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection. With ultra - simplicity, Stewart (scholar and poet) captures the mystery of the matryoshka in three simple words: "within within within," a phrase to open your mind and send a quick shiver down your spine. I felt those same goosebumps when Atkinson describes Martin's trip to St. Petersburg:
" . . . there were dolls, thousands of dolls, legion upon legion of matryoshka, not just the ones you could see but also the ones you couldn't -- dolls within dolls, endlessly replicating and diminishing, like an infinite series of mirrors . . . Martin had never given matryoshka much thought before but here in St. Petersburg their ranks seemed omnipresent and unavoidable . . . big ones, small ones, tall ones and squat ones . . . dolls in the shape of cats, dogs, frogs, there were American presidents and Soviet leaders, there were five - doll sets and fifty - doll sets, there were cosmonauts and clowns, there were crudely made dolls and ones that had been exquisitely painted by real artists. By the time he left the hotel shop Martin felt dizzy, his eyes swimming with endless reflections of dolls' faces . . . ." (One Good Turn 232 - 34, emphasis added)
"You can think of the universe as a set of wooden Russian matryoshka dolls, with each doll having a smaller one inside of it. The entire visible universe is the outermost doll, and nested inside it are galaxies, solar systems, stars, planets -- right down to the smallest doll, which is you. But inside of you is an even smaller doll that somehow has the biggest doll inside of it. When you figure out this riddle, you will have discovered the key to your ascension!"
~ Elizabeth Clare Prophet
This ethereal, eerie, enmeshed elegance is what Stewart calls the "profound interiorty" of the doll / dollhouse (61); and philosopher John O'Donohue refers to as "the infinity of our interiority."

Martin is mesmerized by both the "profund interiority" of the colorful stacking matryoshi and the charming salesgirl at the matryoshka stall. When he ventures out once again in search of souvenirs, the salesgirl Irinia "started picking up different dolls, opening them up, cracking them all like eggs" (OGT 236). Like eggs! I love that! After all, there are similarities between the two! Everyone knows that an egg -- especially an Easter Egg -- can contain a surprise!

As a keepsake, Martin chooses "an expensive fifteen - doll set . . . attractive things, their fat - bellied stomachs painted with 'winter scenes' from Pushkin. Works of art really, too good for his mother, and he decided he would keep them for himself. 'Very beautiful,' " On the way home, he thinks of the nested dolls he has just purchased, tucked away, out of sight, in "the thin plastic carrier bag that contained his newspaper - wrapped dolls, snugly inside each other now" -- minatures within miniatures within miniatures. It crosses Martin's mind that in picking out the Pushkin set he had devoted "more contemplation than either the task or the dolls merited" (OGT 36 - 37).

Curiously though, his thought process aligns with Susan Stewart's theory of the miniature and the gigantic, especially when it comes to "tourist art," tchotchkes that don't cost much money and serve little purpose: "Use value is transformed into display value . . . Those qualities of the object which link it most closely to its function in native context are emptied and replaced by both display value and the symbolic system of the consumer." Of course, one might rightly observe that nesting dolls don't really serve a purpose; but, as Stewart explains, "Even the most basic use of the toy object -- to be played with -- is not often found in the world of the dollhouse" or in the world of "tourist art":
The miniature comes into the chain of signification at a remove: there is no original miniature; there is only the thing in "itself," which has already been erased, which has disappeared . . . the miniature typifies the structure of memory, of childhood . . . from its petite sincerity arises an "authentic" subject . . . . (Stewart 62, 149, 171 - 72, emphasis added)
For a fleeting second, Martin thinks about a nice set of nesting dolls for his mother but rejects this impulse, resolving instead to buy "something ordinary . . . because she deserved nothing better than ordinary -- a little peasant set, aprons and headscarves." Then he reconsiders even this downmarket gift, knowing that whatever he picks will end up neglected "amongst her other cheap knick - knacks." Instead of the peasant dolls, he moves down yet another rung on the souvenir ladder, purchasing at last "a fridge magnet for his mother, a little varnished wooden matryoshka" -- the merest echo of the real thing. In keeping with Stewart's observation of tourist art, this lone wooden trinket cannot even perform the sole function of the matryoshka -- to be nested within a set.

A few years later, back in Edinburgh, Martin's housecleaner Sophia admires his Pushkin matryoshki:
"He had a set of Russian dolls, matryoshka, the expensive kind. . . . The writer's dolls were lined up on the windowsill [display value!], she dusted them every week. Sometimes she put them inside each other, playing with them like she had done with her own set when she was a child. She used to think they were eating each other [!]. Her matryoshka had been cheap, crudely painted in primary colours, but the dolls that belonged to the writer were beautiful, painted by a real artist with scenes from Pushkin -- so many many artists in Russia with no jobs now, painting boxes and dolls and eggs, anything for tourists. The writer had a fifteen - doll set! How she would have loved that when she was a girl." (OGT 220 - 21)
Imagine Sophia's shock to enter Martin's well - kept house for a routine cleaning, only to find the dolls "scattered everywhere, little skittles knocked flying. She picked one up without thinking and put it in the pocket of her jacket, feeling the smooth, round, satisfying shape of it" (OGT 222)

Perhaps drawn to its "petite sincerity," both Sophia and, later in the day, Jackson take the opportunity to pocket a miniature matryoshka, as a kind of talisman to sustain them through the stressful criminal investigtion process that lies before them. Coincidentally, the word keeps coming up throughout Jackson's day (as my sisters and I have discussed previously). When investigating a suspicious "Import - Export" business, he comes across a "wall of boxes, all stencilled with one mysterious word, 'Matryoshka.'" When he stops by the Edinburgh Festival, he notices a circus act entitled " 'Matryoshka' . . . The word of the day," he tells himself.
Jackson . . . spotted something on the carpet, a tiny painted wooden doll, no bigger than a peanut. He picked it up and peered at it . . . 'What is that?' he asked, holding the little doll up for her inspection.

Louise: "It's from one of those Russian doll sets,' she said, 'the ones that nest inside each other. Matri - something."

Jackson: "Matryoshka?"

Louise: "Yes."

Jackson: "This one doesn't open."

Louise: "That's because it's the last one. The baby."

Jackson pocketed the doll. . . .

He felt the peanut - baby doll in his jacket pocket. The layers of the onion. Chinese boxes, Chinese whispers. Russian whispers. Secrets within secrets. Dolls within dolls.
(320, 342 - 43, 363)
dialogue from One Good Turn (2006)
by Kate Atkinson (b 1951),
scholarly, spell - binding British novelist

Next Fortnightly Post
Sunday, April 28th

Between now and then, read
THE QUOTIDIAN KIT ~ See related essay: Russian Straw Dolls
my shorter, almost daily blog posts

Looking for a good book? Try
my running list of recent reading

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Continued Connections

"Making your way in the world today
takes everything you got
Taking a break from all your worries
sure would help a lot.
Wouldn't you like to get away? . . .
Sometimes you want to go
Where everybody knows your name
And they're always glad you came
You want to be where you can see
The troubles are all the same
You want to be where everybody knows your name . . .
You want to go where people know
The people are all the same
You want to go where everybody knows your name. . . "

~ Song from Cheers ~


At some level, isn't that what we all want -- to be known? It's what Hafiz calls "that great pull to connect," to be in synch, to harmonize, to be part and parcel of the universe. Think of the photographer in The Memory Keeper's Daughter, placing one photograph beside another, hoping to find that "the entire world is contained within each living person. . . . he yearned to capture on film: these rare moments where the world seemed unified, coherent, everything contained in a single fleeting image" (similar project).

I know I've posted this poem before, but it [Red]bears repeating:

With That Moon Language

Admit something:

Everyone you see,
you say to them,
“Love me.” [Choose Me!]

Of course you do not do this out loud,
otherwise someone would call the cops.

Still, though, think about this,
this great pull in us to connect.

Why not become the one who lives
with a full moon in each eye
that is always saying,

with that sweet moon language,
what every other eye
in this world
is dying to hear?

Hafiz (1325 – 1389)
14th - Century Beloved Persian poet and lyrical genius


Writing six centuries after Hafiz, the Irish poet, priest, and philosopher John O'Donohue (1956 - 2008) looks at "this great pull" in a different, unsettling way. Yes, of course, we all want to feel connected, but is that always such a good thing? In Anam Cara: A Book of Celctic Wisdom, O'Donohue analyzes our craving for connection. Like Hafiz, O'Donohue asks us to search our souls and "Admit something":
We assume too readily that we share one world with other people. It is true at the objective level that we inhabit the same physical space as other humans; the sky is, after all, the one visual constant that unites everyone’s perception of being in the world. Yet this outer world offers no access to the inner world of an individual. At a deeper level, each person is the custodian of a completely private, individual world. Sometimes our beliefs, opinions, and thoughts are ultimately ways of consoling [does he mean "deceiving"] ourselves that we are not alone with the burden of a unique, inner world. It suits us to pretend that we all belong to the one world, but we are more alone than we realize.
I feel somewhat dismayed yet intrigued by Donohue's suspicion that we are fundamentally disparate beings, despite our yearning for connection. Do I deceive myself that connection and coincidence govern our mutual existence? Possibly. Do I write essays and blog posts not so much in celebration of our similar outlooks but to console myself over a mutual failure to "connect, only connect" (see also: Commonplace Book, King & Queen, Handful of Dust, Heroine of Sensibility)? I hope not. Still, O'Donohue's words are haunting.

The Cheers song says we want to see that "troubles are all the same" and be where "people are all the same," but maybe, as O'Donohue suggests, we are incorrect in our assumption that this could ever be our reality. Perhaps such a place exists only on television or deep in our romantic imaginings. Yet, after ten years of blogging on this topic, beginning with my E. M. Forster - inspired Mission Statement, the connections keep on coming! They appear of their own accord, neither imaginary nor forced, woven daily through the Great Conversation. Only recently, after having all three read the same novel -- Jodi Picoult's Small Great Things [more on this later] -- my sisters and I were discussing our shared perceptions of literary coincidence:
Kit: Do you ever notice that sometimes when you read a book or see a movie or learn a new word -- all of a sudden it's everywhere!

Peg: I know what you mean about universe coincidences. I’ve sometimes wondered how this is possible because it seems to happen on such random topics.

Kit: Precisely!

Di: I love when things like that happen! Sometimes Tom and I will be talking, and one of us says something, then the person on TV will say it. Like the universe is singing together.

[Or as another friend put it: this infinite symphony of existence.]
How appropriate that they should both pick a musical metaphor to describe this phenomenon of universal synchronicity!

I am particularly fond of literary connections that fall into the category of "connections about connections." Take, for example, One Good Turn, a delightfully dense British mystery in which the endearing private dectective Jackson Brodie becomes obsessed with puzzling out the distinction between a connection and a coincidence:
Jackson: There's a connection between the two girls, there has to be. . . .

Louise: "Could just be a coincidence."

Jackson: "You're playing devil's advocate. And I don't believe in coincidence . . . A coincidence is just an explanation waiting to happen." (343 - 44)

Jackson: "You say coincidence . . . I say connection. A baffling, impenetrably complex connection, but nonetheless a connection. . . . he could see something that made sense. A tangible connection, not just a coincidence." (369, 374)

Louise: Jackson had been . . . Making his bloody 'connections' everywhere. (435)

Jackson: "You say connection, I say connection." (448)
dialogue from One Good Turn (2006)
by Kate Atkinson (b 1951),
scholarly, spell - binding British novelist
. . . and lastly . . .

"Boxes within boxes, dolls within dolls, worlds within worlds.
Everything was connected. Everything in the whole world."


This closing thought on interiority & connection . . .

Next Fortnightly Post
Sunday, April 14th

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