Wednesday, November 30, 2011
We have no time to stand and stare? W. H Davies, “Leisure”.
Go to the ant, thou sluggard. Consider her ways and be wise. Proverbs 6:6
I’ve gone to the ant, considered her ways for the last fifty years, and no longer think her a worthy role model. Sluggardry suits me better now. I’d be the first to admit that I’ve become unfitted for gainful employment. Others might simply call me an idler. So when have I denied that? Check my profile. “Occupation: idler”, it shamelessly admits. “Many a true word is spoken in jest”: that’s eight true words for a start.
Out of the strong came forth sweetness. Judges 14:14. Who am I to judge, but I say “Out of the fool came forth wisdom.”
A worthy fool! Motley’s the only wear. (Jacques in As You Like It)
The fool in Shakespeare seems to be someone who says the first thing that comes into his head, and yet he’s a holy fool. That’s my role model! He’s treasonously irreverent to the King, but safe from beheading, for he’s the only one who speaks true. The others are fawning flatterers, whose advice is worthless.
Superficially, the concept of “saving the planet” seems to demand more ants and fewer sluggards for its proper implementation. Won’t everyone have to work harder for less pay and so on, so that together we can solve the debt crisis? Forgive me for oversimplifying but this site is not a place for incisive political and economic commentary. Let it rather be a haven of foolery, a simulacrum of honest toil, an excavation for fool’s gold: not the real thing but a catalyst to make someone see differently without knowing it. That is my kind of truth, not the rational-scientific kind, for which I defer to Bryan M. White and Steve Law (see below for links to their sites).
So, I propose, idleness is the only way to evade the frenzy of production and consumption which have brought this world to its current state. They say we’ve seen nothing yet. So, if I learn the graceful art of idleness, and embrace foolery while I’m at it, I’ll benefit the planet more surely than any action could possibly achieve. Proudly declaring my manifesto, I scotch the guilty feeling that I should do something. Then I start throwing all my energies into the most challenging pastime known to man: what the Italians call dolce far niente. Or if not sweet nothing, as little as possible, consistent with my temperament, which constantly seeks to prove and improve. As I said, my profession of idler is aspirational. It cannot be achieved in a day. That would be too much trouble.
My fool’s truth is to think no thought, till one arises unbidden from I know not where: a still small voice.
And after the earthquake a fire; but the LORD was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice. (I Kings, 19:12)
I have no religion, but I aspire to be the servant of that still small voice, and to listen to the truth in every jest. To justify my cowardice, for instance.
The better part of valour is discretion: in the which better part I have saved my life. (Falstaff, in Henry IV Part I, V:iv.) The quotation has been so wrested from its context that we forget the jest. Falstaff’s “discretion” was a euphemism for cowardice. Instead of fighting loyally for his friend Prince Hal, he played dead on the battlefield the moment danger arose.
What reminded me of cowardice was an incident in the street, the other side of the playground, which my study window overlooks (see snapshot alongside). I saw three police there the other day, scanning the ground for clues, but I didn’t know why. Now they’ve sent a leaflet through the letter-box appealing for witnesses. A boy aged 16 had challenged a woman with an out-of-control pit-bull terrier. By way of response, her male companion broke the boy’s jaw with a metal bar. I’m sorry he had to learn such a harsh lesson. If he’s more careful, he’ll outlive me by many years, and tell his children that discretion is the better part of valour. It’s the better part of cowardice too.
Posted by Vincent at 9:55 am
Sunday, November 27, 2011
As Bryan has mentioned—see his comment below—this post and its predecessor may be so incoherent and lacking in worthwhile point as to cause nosebleed and/or blackouts in sensitive readers. But let it stand, as readers have taken the trouble to comment.
(Continued from previous post)
Extract from first day’s transcript, typed up 25th August 2005—a week after the session:
I will tell how I met Elaine.
That’s what I want to know.
Ah, right. In the year 2000 I did an expert course on creative thinking. Elaine taught part of the programme—in applied imagination, beelddenken, and there was one exercise in which she said, “OK, go back to the time when you were in your strength.” In your full strength?
And then I went back to the situation in ’86 when I was travelling through the United States with the Greyhound bus, and I was travelling, I think 10,000 miles in three weeks. And so there were times I didn’t know where I was coming from and didn’t know where I was going to. I was just travelling. And while I was travelling, drifting, I was in my strength. And the exercise she asked me to do brought me back to this feeling of just floating. And then I got very emotional about it, and I realised I hadn’t experienced this flow for many years.
Fourteen! (General laughter.)
To be exact.
Yes, for me it was a shift, you know, turning directions. It was like a decision was made: “Yes, I want to re-experience this flow”—which I am in now, five years later.
In his gratitude for being helped to “turn directions”, Bart had the idea of presenting Elaine with the gift of a specially-commissioned biography: hers, not his. And that’s how I got involved, as a newly-professional biographer—recently-published, at any rate.
We completed the fact-finding part in a series of recorded “trialogues” (Bart’s word). But it never went any further. I completed the transcripts, all except for the sections in Dutch, for which I needed Bart’s translatione At some stage, both he and Elaine changed their minds about completing the project. So it has been mothballed ever since. I’ve committed myself to lifetime confidentiality about the details of Elaine’s life and her identity. Had we continued with the project, I would have had to face an artistic dilemma: how to frame the story, what angle to write from. Our trialogues were not cross-examinations: they allowed her to speak freely, weave a tapestry of her own choosing. Bart & I from our different angles asked questions for clarity and understanding, that’s all. Elaine was a flouter of bourgeois conventions, but no ordinary bohemian. In a sense, that was the underlying theme. But I fought shy of producing (in effect) a ghosted autobiography. The problem is that a person still in the public eye, with clients and students, would probably want to present herself as an exemplar of all she stands for: highlighting discoveries, minimizing humiliating failures. As I write this I wonder if that’s true, so I check randomly among the transcripts (no.17 of 19), doing a word-search on ‘fail’. Hm, perhaps I was wrong in my judgement, I don’t know. But the imperfect English (not to mention the still-untranslated parts in Dutch) illustrates additional challenges for an author. Elaine speaks:
Then I decided, “no, I am alone and D is gone and I can reconciliate with what I had with him for having been 18, 19 years with him, and losing him.” It was “I think I have given everything I had, especially my love, and it is not good enough. Now I know absolutely nothing any more what to do, what to be with life.” So, when I reconciled, I said, “No, no, no, I reconcile with the whole of my life, even this twenty years!” It was a wonderful twenty years and some things went wrong. Now it’s over, so how to start again? He was there and we talked about it and I made a kind of—I changed my mind and I changed my mind as a loser or a somebody who had failed, but that feeling, I had that feeling very much. Now for sure, I know I have failed, at very different levels. And then I thought, “No, no, no, no, no. I will win more or I will choose for happiness, and I will do what is my bliss and I will do for me.”
I really had no idea how to execute the commission, for which I had already received air-fares and other expenses. What I could do, though, the only thing I really know how to do, was to focus on my own reactions. Accordingly, at the end of transcript no. 1 there’s a section titled “Vincent’s reflections”:
Bart is long-limbed, built on the Perpendicular style of architecture, like the Stadskerk Sint Cathrien in Eindhoven. [See top photo.] I imagine him descending from a Greyhound bus somewhere in America, on a late afternoon, with no possessions but a small backpack. Where are those limbs to take him? He is in his strength. A group exercise reminded him, awakened him, fourteen years later. The memory changed the direction of his life. And that is why we three are here, in this room, weaving a design of feelings and words to share with the whole world.
I walked this morning through Old Amersham, attracted by the flag of St George on the church tower. In that stroll, I too felt in my strength. The beauty of this chilly, sunny morning uplifted me. I was not possessed by the necessities of life, not driven by problems and desires. The present moment was sunlight kissing old stones, well-pruned trees in the churchyard hiding mysteries in their dark foliage. These were riches enough. I felt desire to capture the moment somehow, so I took some digital photos, but I knew they could not record my feeling.
“What is memory?” I wondered today, as I passed through the wrought iron gates inscribed “Garden of Remembrance”. We get more wisdom from the book of memory, I reflect, than from any printed book.
My short career as a biographer is over, I think. One has to stay within one’s strength.
Posted by Vincent at 11:36 am
Friday, November 25, 2011
Perhaps one doesn’t forget events, but it’s easy to lose hold of what they meant to one at the time, and the precious details. Never was this plainer to me than yesterday, when I happened to glance inside a notebook from five years ago. It’s in a large page-size and heavier than the handy ones I take around these days, so it’s lain neglected, half the pages still virgin. Its hard covers have proved handy as a base for cutting out shapes with a knife, so its silvery surface is a mess of scars exposing dull grey cardboard. I never thought the content could be of any interest now. I thought it was like my other old notebooks: worthless scribbles. At least that was the reason I threw them away.
I came across a series of entries, starting with one written idly on a flight to Holland, to pass the time. It was the beginning of a strange adventure, one I’ve ignored since as rather fruitless. But reading back what I wrote at the time, it takes on a different flavour, one which may be worth sharing. I’ll quote verbatim, with explanations in square brackets where necessary.
I note my reluctance to read—not just novels & newspapers but anything at all. It is as if they would pollute my brain. Same with thoughts. Even writing. Prefer to keep almost empty. Yet—emotions grip me!
Unless I can explain something in words, I am not sure if I understand it! Thought I had a frosted window but it was obscured by a sliding door.[must be a reference to the window on the plane.]
Who am I? Neo. Also the reader, also a member of a triangle, also the scribe. Also an interpreter. [Apparently, Neo is a character in a film called The Matrix, which I once saw, but cannot now remember at all. But my handwriting for once is quite clear on this point. I did write “Neo”. I think the following sentence relates to the adventure I was on my way to join. It had been set up to take place in Eindhoven over a period of five days. I understand “triangle” in the sense that there were to be three of us: two men and one woman. I wasn’t entirely clear why I had been invited. Hence my question “Who am I?” It may have meant “What is my role in the adventure?”] We are to make something new. We are to give attention and it is a kind of alchemic process, whereby something new is produced. Tell the story of my abandonment aged 5. [I’ve written this up here] The story of Elaine—how she got involved with this. & Bart too. We came together. And so did the reader [I still don’t understand this. I already knew Bart, but I hadn’t yet met Elaine. So what was I on about? I think I was already planning how to write up the adventure, before it had yet happened.]
Listening to people’s holiday reading [where? On the radio? Perhaps I saw myself as jotting down notes, to be filled out later in a more extensive piece of writing] I felt that everyone is avoiding the issue of what it means to be alive. A listening void. That for each of us is shaped by one NEED. When I won a competition (well, not exactly) for my essay on “A journey you would like to make”.
I spent the night composing a wonderful book about Elaine, awaking with regret to discover it was only a dream. The piece I had written was a gem, summarising as it did all that was discussed and even thought, before we had gone our separate ways to bed last night.
I awake to a beautiful morning and a grateful awareness of Holland. Not only that, I’m on holiday. For me that means every little thing is special, both the new and the recognized, the old friends and the strangers. In reading or writing I savour every word: in time, every second—though it slips by imperceptibly. In sound, every bird-chirp through the window of this meditative attic, with its very own Rietveld chair [See top illustration, and click on it for information about its significance in art history, particularly in the movement known as De Stijl.] and its otherwise timeless Dutch good taste reflected in books, fittings, lamp, bed, works of art, even this desk. Several distant clocks severally chime the hour, and through the little window, I admire a brick-and-tile dovecote (or chimney, I know not which) and domestic architecture from I know not which decade, but which are proudly, unmistakably Dutch.
Why are there so many children’s books in this house, toys too? Modern toys of bright plastic. Yet chosen with the same care as everything else. They are available, they are in various rooms, but they are tidily put away. (Of course, no child in the house at present.) And Bart occupies a children's room.
[Later: there was no time to write more. We were in session! I had brought two pocket dictaphones, one as a spare, and 16 double-sided microcassettes.]
Day 1. Friday.
Tapes 006,005, Creativity, 002,001, 21-22, 23-24. [with vertical lines splitting these into 3 sessions]
Evening session side 22 starts in Dutch—quite a session about beelddenken. Sensory thinking / non-conceptual. focused.
[Click for a description of beelddenken. Elaine’s real name is on that page, but at this stage I am concealing her identity, Bart’s too. I know how to get in touch with him and may discuss whether he and she agree to come out into the open. It’s possible that in this way we might all three of us obtain closure; that the adventure might finally achieve its original intention. Who knows?]
Posted by Vincent at 3:45 pm
Friday, November 11, 2011
You don’t want to hear about my aches and pains, naturally, and I don’t want to tell you. Suffice to say he’s referred me elsewhere for a test and consultation on some future date to be notified. In the meantime my condition has got better by itself. One of the glories of the National Health Service is its waiting lists. They offer a respite during which you are free from intervention (drugs or surgery), and also from your own anxieties, which at worst can sap your will to live. For you have placed your wellbeing in the hands of others. And that is the essence of Placebo, the most successful remedy in history.
In Jamaica they have the Obeah man. Nobody speaks well of these quacks. But if you are fearful, desperate, poor or ignorant, in any combination, you’ll scrape a few dollars to see him, and get some herbs, incantations and smeared chicken-blood for your pains. You’ll be grateful if you get better, even if it takes a while. If you get worse and die, it won’t be due to the treatment. You don’t blame the man. He did his best. Your destiny remains your own.
The National Health Service is a step up from the obeah man. I’d be the first person to say that. I nearly was the first person. When it was newly-founded in 1948, it saved my leg with a new-fangled drug called penicillin. So my leg says “thank you”. But when I went to the doctor the other day and he’d finished arranging me an appointment elsewhere, he checked his computer screen to remind himself of my last visit, a year ago. He’d prescribed me three types of medication which I was to continue taking daily for the rest of my life. Would I like to say why I hadn’t requested any repeat prescription? I wanted to say “Because I got better”, but it wouldn’t go down well with him. These pills, he told me, cannot cure your condition. They can only control it. The conditions in question are quite invisible to the patient. Only the medical profession—only Science—can tell that you have these conditions. But—here’s the catch—it is determined statistically that they shorten your life. Warming to his theme, he put my details into a computer program, which told him that my life would be at least ten years shorter if I didn’t take the pills. So I said, “OK, you have convinced me.” He handed me a prescription. I’ve put it in my sock drawer.
So I went back home, discovered I have in my sock drawer the unused medications from a year ago, still within their expiry date. I really didn’t want my body to deteriorate in the manner he had warned. So I followed the instructions for nearly a week, by which time the various trivial symptoms which had been plaguing me for weeks, mental and physical, intensified. To the point where I didn’t care about the next ten years. Life was burden enough now. I checked the leaflets which tell you about “possible side effects”. Yes, one of them described everything I was going through. But it was the other one which really bothered me. Each of the various diseases it can cause is worse than anything I’ve had in my life, or expect to have. I’ll merely quote this: Contact your doctor immediately if you experience muscle aches and pains, tenderness, weakness or cramps. This is because on rare occasions, muscle damage can be serious. So, I have been prescribed something which can cause the very problem I came about in the first place. Not just that but insomnia, nightmares, memory loss, sexual difficulties, depression, breathing difficulties, fever, liver disease, hair loss, dizziness, bone disorders and loss of sensation in the arms and legs. Give me the obeah man!
Needless to say, I stopped taking the medications. After a few days, the symptoms have subsided, as well as symptoms I never noticed I had, till they stopped. I started feeling better than I have for a long time. But here’s the thing. All my symptoms work together. I promised at the beginning that I would share a great truth with you. I shall but here is a warning. It may not be true for you. I cannot say it is The Truth, because I don’t believe in The Truth, just your truth and mine. For me, if one thing is wrong with my body, other things generally are too. My consciousness goes sick as well. Things are interconnected, but the doctor wants to treat me as if I’d brought my car to the workshop and he were a mechanic. If the tyres are worn, it doesn’t mean I should change the light bulbs too. The brakes work independently of the oil pressure—or at least I think so. But if I saw the doctor for depression he’d give me something to lighten my mood, as if replacing a fuse. He should know that a blown fuse may indicate another problem. He does, actually, but the National Health Service cannot offer everyone psychotherapy. So he cures the blown fuse with a stronger fuse.
I can tell you what has made me feel so well—not in detail, only the vaguest terms. Something was hanging over my head, something I was dreading: not for itself but for the way it stirred up old wounds, as it were: things from my past. I didn’t want to face them—kept them hidden. One immediate result was a specific form of writer’s block, one which prevented me publishing anything here. (Normally this block strikes on only six days of the week. I can live with that.) The remedy, so I read it in hindsight, is (1) to take time out, face the past and wallow in self-pity for a bit. Then complete the session with (2) the good old tried and tested “pull yourself together, man!” The magic bullet is (1) followed when you’re good and ready by (2).
This then is my truth. Evidence-based science parades its nostrums before me, but I know that when I’m sick I have to fix the whole, and never mind propping up the parts. (Life has already enough side-effects.)
It may be different for you. Your destiny remains your own.
Posted by Vincent at 2:20 pm