The Wick Within the Flame

After recently re-reading Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, Richard Crary found his appreciation of the novel undimmed a decade on from its first publication. “It is, in many ways, what used to be called ‘wisdom literature,’” he writes, “yet it is also a marvelous, and subtle, literary performance. And, it seems to me, a wholly appropriate literary response to our current situation, in the sense in which I have here attempted to channel or expand on Josipovici and others.”

I agree with both judgments and especially the last. Perhaps due to the vividness of its pastoral setting or the sophisticated and convincing ventriloquism through which Robinson breathes life into her narrator, the Reverand John Ames, Gilead tends to be read as a work of regional realism, a skilful observation of life in small-town Iowa in the 1950s. But there’s a conceit to both the narrative and the act of narration that imbues every word with extra complexity. “What is afflicting Mallarmé, Hofmannsthal, Kafka, and Beckett,” Josipovici writes in What Ever Happened to Modernism?, “is the sense that they feel impelled to write, this being the only way they know to be true to their own natures, yet at the same time they find that in doing so they are being false to the world — imposing a shape on it and giving it a meaning which it doesn’t have — and thus, ultimately, being false to themselves.” In Gilead, Ames is similarly impelled to write and similarly suffers a sense that he is being false to himself, although his suffering comes with a twist on that of the writers named above.

Gilead takes the form of a long letter that the ageing Ames writes to his young son, to be read by the boy when Ames is dead. Knowing that he will be an absent father for much of his son’s life, Ames begins writing with the intention of articulating his son’s “begats” in much the way that such things appear in the Bible: “Adam begat Seth; and Seth, Enos,” and so on. He begins writing, then, because he is impelled in some sense to transcend death, to speak to his son from beyond the grave, but when he sits down and to put words on the page, he finds that he is impelled to write about very different matters. “Sometimes I almost forget my purpose in writing this,” he admits in a preface to one such interruption to his intentions, and Gilead is replete with remarks on events that Ames describes almost in real time insofar as they take place concurrent to his act of writing: see, for example, pages 10, 20, 42, 72, 62, and 118-119 of the 2005 Picador paperback. Gilead also contains a great deal of writing about the nature of religious belief and of belief in the power of words — which almost amount to one and the same thing for Ames, since, as he says, “[f]or me writing has always felt like praying, even when I wasn’t writing prayers” — as well as Ames’ meditations on the difficulties of finding a way of writing that allows him to be true to himself. “You must not judge what I know by what I find words for,” he warns his son at one point, and later: “I am attempting to describe what I have never before attempted to put into words. I have made myself a little weary in the struggle.” If Gilead is indeed to be read as “wisdom literature,” passages of this sort are surely the locus of much of the wisdom it has to offer.

But quite unlike Mallarmé, Hofmannsthal, Kafka, Beckett, and others whose struggles find an echo in those of the Reverend Ames, Ames’ act of writing in Gilead occurs in the shadow of a much larger and longer-term act of writing that has already taken place. His struggles, then, are the struggles of a man who strives as much to write something free of artifice as to find a way of writing that differs from the way in which he wrote the things he has already written. By the time he begins his letter to his son, Ames has been a small-town preacher for the better part of fifty years and, as he reveals early on,

I wrote my sermons out word for word. There are boxes of them in the attic, a few recent years of them in stacks in the closet. … Pretty nearly my whole life’s work is in those boxes, which is an amazing thing to reflect on. … I think every day about going through those old sermons of mine to see if there are one or two I might want you to read sometime, but there are so many… If I had the time, I could read my way through fifty years of my innermost life.

Had Ames wished to make it so, Gilead could have amounted to a record of his encounter with, and editing of, the past he has already committed to paper — a dialogue with his younger self, conducted by way of returning to those sermons to summarise, amend, or respond to them. But Gilead is no more that sort of record than it is the genealogical record that Ames originally intended it to produce. It is its own, new thing: implicitly a record of Ames’ failure to write of biographical affairs, implicitly a record of his refusal to write or rewrite his innermost life, and more or less explicitly an intermittent record of whatever it is that wrestles its way into his mind when he sits down to write and struggles with the task he has set himself.

Gilead is therefore, in a sense, a projection onto the page of a consciousness as it tarries, dwells, wallows in three distinct moments simultaneously: first the moment in which past events worthy of discussion are recalled by Ames; then the moment in which a new idea or sudden insight intrudes upon his recollection of events; and finally the moment in which he attempts to channel the intrusion into words, elucidating it and elaborating upon it until, intertwined with traces of the first two moments, it acquires the character of a sensual experience and becomes an abstraction clothed in material textures. Although he sets out to “impos[e] a shape on [the world] and giv[e] it a meaning which it doesn’t have,” Ames recurrently allows the world to impose upon his writing in ways that sometimes illuminate but more often challenge the meaning he finds in it. The result, at once retrospective and introspective, is a novel in which Ames’ distractions from and difficulties with the work he is attempting to write do not obstruct his expression of his “true nature” but rather allow recurrent glimpses of his “true nature” as he conceives of it. “When people come to speak to me,” he writes,

whatever they say, I am struck by a kind of incandescence in them, the ‘I’ whose predicate can be ‘love’ or ‘fear’ or ‘want,’ and whose object can be ‘someone’ or ‘nothing’ and it won’t really matter, because the loveliness is just in that presence, shaped around ‘I’ like a flame on a wick, emanating itself in grief and guilt and joy and whatever else. But quick, and avid, and resourceful.

If Ames himself is the “I” in Gilead, his distractions from and difficulties with writing are intermittently the objects of his attention, and those objects are woven into the letter he writes to his son in ways that invite him to detail the intricacies of any number of predicates. Insofar as those are the predicates through which, according to Ames’ own metaphor, one can truly glimpse the wick of the consciousness they burn upon, Gilead enacts the afflictions of Mallarmé, Hofmannsthal, and their ilk — albeit in service of a narrative conceit that enables them to work to produce effects quite distinct from the despair of those writers.

Silence, True and Pure

Me and Ivy

Silence has shrouded this space for much of the last few months because, in my life offline, most of my recent thoughts have been bent around a different kind of silence, a silence true and pure. In April 2014, my wife and I became parents to a healthy and happy little girl named Ivy. Not quite six months later, however, Ivy underwent behavioural tests that showed some signs of hearing loss, and then, when she was exactly six months, specialised tests revealed that she is in fact profoundly deaf. She can’t hear sounds of any kind, not even at the volume of a close-range aircraft engine, and she suffers hearing loss so extreme that she may never be able to hear at all.

In coping with the failure of hearing aids, in anticipating the insertion of a cochlear implant, in working full-time and parenting while also learning how to respond to deafness in children and how to adjust our lives to meet the needs of a child with a severe disability, the stresses of the period following Ivy’s diagnosis have been monumental. But some of the most monumental stresses of all have come less from practical difficulties than from daily wrestling with a sense of long-term loss and the grief that attends it. To know that our daughter has no access to sound is to know that we may never be able to share with her so much of what we most appreciate in the world. For my wife, the greatest loss to Ivy is music in all its varieties. Coming from a family for whom music is the lingua franca of shared experience, it has been terrible for her to begin processing the knowledge that Ivy will in some sense be forever cut off, kept at a distance, from that part of her heritage.1 For me, of course, what seems to be lost is Ivy’s access to what I believe is the greatest of the pleasures of literature.

I was teaching The Scarlet Letter and Leaves of Grass when the results of Ivy’s tests came through and, at the same time, I was preparing to teach Gertrude Stein, Gary Lutz, Lydia Davis, and dozens of other writers who invest extraordinary energy in distinct, challenging, and versatile prose styles. I could not escape the obvious truth. So much of what literature means to me depends on being attuned to its prosody. So much of what makes it valuable for me resides in the harmonies and dissonances that develop and dissolve as the eye passes over a sentence, the succession of concordant and discordant intonations offered up by the author’s careful selection of words and by the equally careful positioning of those words in relation to one another. The value of prosody sings to me from the shelves full of books in my house and from every page of my own book, Blood and Bone, which was published when Ivy was just eight weeks old.

Language is the distillation of the constituent elements and concepts of the world, in all their overwhelming variety, into a system of symbols. For most people, at first, those symbols take the form of sound. Literature, then, is not a system of symbols constructed to represent the world, but a system of symbols constructed to represent other symbols, a lexical representation of the auditory symbols that are our primary means of referring to the world and of thereby representing it. Even though reading remains a “visual business,” as William H. Gass puts it, the writers whose work attracts me are those whose practices involve what Gass calls a sense of “the marvelous palpable quality of making words and sounding them.” Indeed, whether it be the work of Didion or Sontag, McCarthy or Murnane, Hemingway or Faulkner, Gaddis or Wallace, what resonates most powerfully with me is work in which each word seems to have been selected as much for its fixed referential qualities as for its atmospheric musicality, so that a carefully constructed tonal and prosodic soundtrack shadows the literal meaning of every sentence. But one need not turn to the writers above to seek out works in which prosody stands at the forefront of appreciable literary qualities. It’s there, too, at the forefront of just about every children’s book on the market — the majority of which make liberal use of qualities like alliteration and rhyme — so that Ivy’s deafness blocks her access to the pleasures of the literature available to her even at this early stage in her life. Will it hold other pleasures for her sometime further on? And equally, given the efforts now underway to facilitate Ivy’s acquisition of language, will literature come to hold for her distinct and unique pleasures that I can never access?

My wife and I are in the midst of learning British Sign Language (BSL) so that we can pass it on to her. This is a difficult process because, whereas hearing children acquire language by environmental means, simply by being within earshot of spoken language on a regular basis, Ivy will acquire it only through bursts of direct visual contact with BSL practitioners. Nevertheless, with BSL as her native language, with the constituent elements and concepts of the world distilled into a system of symbols entailing bodily movement, written language will call to mind a complex of worldly referents and movement sensations where otherwise it would call to mind a complex of referents and sounds.2 If, for me, to read is to see a word written on the page and then, reflexively, to simultaneously grasp its referent and hear in my head the whisper of its sound, will Ivy’s reading involve grasping a referent while also feeling a ghostly motion passing through her fingers, her face, her torso and her arms? If written words transmit to me a sense of music unaccompanied by motion, will they transmit to Ivy something like a dance without a tune? What exactly will be, for her, the sensation that shadows their meaning? And if, someday, Ivy were to read the work of any of the writers named above, would she experience a sensation as pleasurable as the one I derive from their sound? She almost certainly wouldn’t. This is not to say that the sensation of movement in sign language cannot generate pleasure,3 but only that the above writers have arranged their words on the page so as to produce pleasure through sound without regard for signs. Additionally, since sign languages vary greatly from country to country and even amongst countries that share a spoken language, and since the grammatical structures of the sign languages of English-speaking countries tend to depart significantly from the structures of spoken English, chaos is the inevitable result of any attempt to sign a word-for-word translation of a sentence as written in English.

When it comes to novels, then, what possibilities exist for native signers? Is there anywhere a novel written so as to be instantly grammatically intelligible to them, independent of any habituation to the grammar of written English? Is there anywhere a novel whose prose, whose selection and sequencing of words, is directed towards producing pleasurable sensations of ghostly movements for signers rather than producing sensations of sounds? Is there a work whose every turn of phrase is intended not to appeal to those who can hear and to generate pleasure through prosodic musicality, but rather to appeal specifically to the deaf by pleasurably conducting the motions of a body accustomed to sign? Is the composition of such a work even possible? If so, what sorts of sensations would the reading of it produce in a person who reads the way I do?

 

 


Notes

1. While cochlear implants “have the potential to magnificently enhance the understanding and acquisition of spoken language,” as Gavin Francis observes in a recent article in the New York Review of Books, “15 to 20 percent of recipients gain little benefit from them and, contrary to some claims, they don’t reproduce normal hearing. Instead they transmit a simplified, broken-down representation of the acoustic world” which “one of the technology’s pioneers, Michael Merzenich, likens [to] ‘playing Chopin with your fist.’” Even in the best-case scenario, then, a full appreciation of music will probably remain inaccessible to Ivy.

2. As Susan Goldin-Meadow and Rachel Mayberry write, “To become readers, [hearing] children must learn the mapping between the spoken language they already know and printed words on a page. For English, as for most languages, that mapping is based on sound. Once children understand the underlying principles of the print-sound mapping… they can call upon their knowledge of their spoken language to facilitate the reading process,” such as when they are guided into ‘sounding out’ the letters of an unfamiliar word. But “deaf children are disadvantaged as potential readers on both of these counts — they do not have easy access to the phonological code and many do not know any language well.” Moreover, when “deaf readers translate [a written] sentence into [sign language],” they are continually at risk of finding the written sentence “relatively difficult to process,” and therefore unpleasant to read, because, among other reasons, “the signs in the translation [may be too] similar in form.”

3. In his recent book Far From the Tree, Andrew Solomon describes, with a sense of childlike wonder, watching the movements of a deaf woman who “manifests a pleasure in [her language] that only poets feel for English” through movements “so swift, crisp, and perfectly controlled that she seems to be arranging the air into a more acceptable shape.”

 

Books Are Made Out of Books

My research notes for Blood and Bone are now online at Necessary Fiction:

“The ugly fact is books are made out of books,” Cormac McCarthy once said. “The novel depends for its life on the novels that have been written.” But as well as appending those remarks to a list of his literary influences, McCarthy named the writers whose work he most dislikes (Marcel Proust, Henry James) and suggested that his own books are made not only out of others but against them as well. According to this view of things, literature is a form of protest against a sense of absence in the world. Since readers hardly need new work that merely echoes work already in existence, there must be, among the forces that compel a person to sit down and write a book, some lingering dissatisfaction with the books already written and some notion of a sort of book that has not been written before. Those forces are certainly what compelled me to write my novel Blood and Bone, a novel that contains traces of the books instrumental to its creation and that also, in a way, endeavors to unwrite them.

Thomas Keneally, David Malouf, Kate Grenville, Rohan Wilson, Geraldine Brooks, and Hannah Kent each score a mention for having influenced the writing of Blood and Bone in much the same way that Proust might have influenced Blood Meridian.

Blood and Bone Reviewed

Blood and Bone reviewed in
The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

Today’s Sydney Morning Herald and The Age carry a short review of Blood and Bone. Kerryn Goldsworthy, one of Australia’s best critics and winner of last year’s Pascall Prize, says that it “fulfils two objectives: shedding light on a dark past, and exploring intellectual and aesthetic problems that the writing of such a story might create.” Click here to read the review online or click the picture to read it as it appears in print.

Meaning Against the Meaningless

At this late stage, two years after the English translation of the first volume of My Struggle, there’s very little to add to discussions of Karl Ove Knausgaard. A Death in the Family, A Man in Love, and now Boyhood Island have spurred so much writing of such a high calibre – by novelists like Sheila Heti and Ben Lerner and by reviewers like James Wood, Rose McLaren, and especially James Ley, whose essay in the Sydney Review remains easily the best I have read – so that it is now virtually impossible to say anything new about the man and his work. There’s one observation, though, that has made frequent appearances in responses to My Struggle and that strikes me as a bit of a sideshow to the main attraction. It’s the observation that My Struggle is compulsively readable even though its often mundane subject matter should make the reading experience somewhat like wading through treacle, and that the source of the compulsion to read on and read on is therefore shrouded in mystery. I don’t think there’s anything mysterious about this. I think that the source of the compulsion to read is right there in Knausgaard’s first ten pages.

Recalling a boyhood encounter with his father in the mid-1970s, reflecting on it now as a man who has reached the age his father was then, Knausgaard meditates on “how great the difference was between our days.” His own days at that time, he writes,

were jam-packed with meaning, when each step opened a new opportunity, and when every opportunity filled me to the brim, in a way which now is actually incomprehensible, [whereas] the meaning of [my father’s] days was not concentrated in individual events but spread over such large areas that it was not possible to comprehend them in anything other than abstract terms. ‘Family’ was one such term; ‘career’ another. Few or no unforeseen opportunities at all can have presented themselves in the course of his days.

Knausgaard’s conclusion is that his father’s life had become largely meaningless simply by virtue of his having lived so long. “Meaning requires content,” he writes, “content requires time, time requires resistance.” Knowledge, on the other hand, involves “bring[ing the world] within the scope of our senses” and “stabilis[ing] it with fixer,” and so this retreat from and stabilisation of worldly phenomena means that “knowledge is stasis and the enemy of meaning.” As an adult looking back on that day in his boyhood, then, Knausgaard comes to see his father not only as an adult authority but also as “a peer through whose life time is blowing and unremittingly sweeping large chunks of meaning along with it.”

“Knausgaard’s world,” as James Wood points out,

is one in which the adventure of the ordinary… is steadily retreating; in which things and objects and sensations are pacing toward meaninglessness. In such a world, the writer’s task is to rescue the adventure from this slow retreat: to bring meaning, color, and life back to the soccer boots and to the grass, and to cranes and trees and airports, and even to Gibson guitars and Roland amplifiers and Ajax.

And Knausgaard’s way of accomplishing this task entails, on one level, revisiting and reconstructing past events in extraordinary, exacting, and often excessive detail. Page after page of My Struggle accumulates detail in what Wood calls an “uncut abundance” and in the absence of “any clear hierarchy of interest.” Knausgaard “seems barely to adjudicate significance,” Ben Lerner agrees, and “appears to just write down everything he can recall (and he appears to recall everything).” For Wood, this amounts to an “artistic commitment to inexhaustibility… which manifests itself as a kind of tiring tirelessness. … He notices everything — too much, no doubt — but often lingers beautifully.”

Too much? Is there really too much detail in My Struggle? Or, rather, can there be too much? Wood contends that “[t]he plenitude of detail… clogs the first half of the book,” and Lerner similarly finds the book burdened by “too much lengthy digression and extremely – at times almost absurdly – detailed description,” but surely this outcome is what Knausgaard’s early remarks on the increasing meaninglessness of adult existence require of anything he might write beyond that point. As Danny Byrne recently wrote, “many critics have noted… with approval, condemnation, or bemusement… [that] My Struggle is characterized by its excessive attention to the banal details of Knausgaard’s phenomenal environment,” but “few have said much about why [this] is so central to Knausgaard’s project.” Wood and Lerner are among the many rather than the few, passing judgment on the effects of the details alone without contextualising them as the effects of Knausgaard’s disposition towards the living of his life, but Byrne explains their significance:

In his emphasis on everyday objects, Knausgaard is like a man in the dark fumbling around for physical reference points as he tries to find his way to the light switch. The flatness of his style is paradoxically infused with the very “uncontrollable longing” for the past that compels the undertaking, present in its very absence. Given the impossibility of reliable recollection, the listing of physical coordinates — kitchen utensils and clothing, the innumerable family meals whose constituent parts are so pedantically itemized — is a way of anchoring his writing in the real, minimizing the inevitable distortions and transfigurations of literary style.

If Knausgaard opens My Struggle by defining a meaningful life as one in which an habituation to the varieties of human experience has not yet occurred, then the recovery of meaning, from the perspective of one who has become habituated, invites a thorough revisitation and a maximally expansive and inclusive reconstruction of the conditions in which meaning once flourished. To some extent, then, it is impossible for My Struggle to ever be overburdened by detail, and in fact the totality of the detail it contains cannot be anything other than insufficient for Knausgaard’s purposes. He begins My Struggle by writing himself both a warrant and a demand to pack his pages full of as much detail as possible, so that even the most obscure, trivial, mundane, or boring detail obtains an epic dimension in order to service something much larger than itself — and much larger, too, than the verisimilitude that conventional literary realism achieves via the inclusion of idiosyncratic but highly selective details.

What makes My Struggle so compulsively readable, I think, is Knausgaard’s exploitation of the inherent tension between this sort of literary project and the nature of literature itself. They are entirely at odds. Every last detail in the book is a minor protest, and a futile one, against the impossibility of the very thing that Knausgaard suggests might be achieved by way of a surfeit of detail. No matter how expansive and inclusive may be the detailing of a meaningful past, the past simply cannot be retrieved and recreated and lost meaning cannot ever be restored – and least of all with building blocks as radically abstract, as divorced from concrete reality, as pages upon pages of written words. Moreover, as the details accumulate around nodes of narrativised experience – Knausgaard’s grappling with death, falling in love, and coping with the demands of parenthood – the narrative nodes break down the life as lived into manageable chunks, countervailing the very rebellion against abstraction that led to the obsessive attention to detail in the first place. Meaning thus becomes for Knausgaard exactly what it was for his father: “not concentrated in individual events but spread over such large areas that it was not possible to comprehend them in anything other than abstract terms.”

And then, of course, even as his struggle against meaninglessness leads him into concrete detail at the sentence level but abstraction at the narrative level, the work he produces is inevitably swept up in his steady drift towards meaninglessness in its most extreme form. “The moment life departs the body,” he writes, “it belongs to death,” and, in death, a human being becomes “[a]t one with lamps, suitcases, carpets, door handles, windows. Fields, marshes, streams, clouds, the sky.” The world he inhabits, as he sees it, has so little respect for human subjectivity that it makes the expression of subjective experience worth little more than mockery. Yet Knausgaard expresses, and expresses, and expresses – recalls, recreates, and revivifies his past – with words each one of which takes him a small step towards an ideal that remains unrealisable even though, because it is an ideal, he cannot do otherwise than attempt to realise it. My Struggle is one very long, very complex contradiction, a book in which not a single word is wasted even though the whole amounts to a waste of words, and it is this quality — this relentless, defiant, desperate onwardness into impossibility — that sets the pages turning almost by themselves.