On-Line Journal - April - May - 2003
April 21st May 18th May 22nd
During the past few weeks I've been busy buying a house. The purchase isn't complete yet - it could all fall through, but I don't think it will.
This will be my first house, and I'm buying it together with Marlene. It is going to mean a substantial change in my life, but the whole process at the moment is like a cross-country trip by jet. I noticed long ago, traveling for business, how strange that process really is: I get on a plane in New York at, say, 9AM. I sit there for a few hours, and then I climb back off the plane in some totally different part of the world. There is no connection. There is no sense of having really traveled. Not in any way like it was when I was nine years old and spent four days crossing the country by train.
Then I saw each passing town - I was aware of traveling along a road, going from one place to another. Here there were hours of wooded hills and valleys, then miles of plains with cornfields to the horizon. Later, slightly rolling empty stretches full of tumbleweed, and then, gradually, we moved into the mountains that blinked on and off as our train passed through tunnel after tunnel. Finally, the mountains behind us, we were poured out again on the far western edge of the country, in California. I sure knew how I'd gotten there - all those images and pictures; four days of breakfast, lunch, and dinner (more canned spinach than I ever wanted to see again;) sleeping in a strange sort of bunk bed with a heavy green curtain between me and the corridor of the train where strangers passed back and forth, the train rocking gently through the night, or else unmoving and silent on a siding, waiting for heaven knows what. That was a trip across the country. But this other form of travel - might as well be beamed from New York directly to San Francisco. Might as well be nothing whatever between them.
Well that's what this impending move seems like. In a flash I'll change from living in one mode - to something completely different. Part of my mind recognizes that this is a very great change, but it's not registering on any of the instruments yet.
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Under My Skin : Volume One of My Autobiography, to 1949
Interview from Salon.com
Book reviews and interviews from the NY Times.
I've almost finished the first volume of Doris Lessing's autobiography. I think it is simply one of the best things I have ever read. Most memoirs, even the very best, have the quality of a friend showing family photographs - the images are clear, all the details sharp, but the living person is the one sitting next to me, not the one in the old images. Lessing, in contrast, makes the person in the images live again.
The lush sensuousness of her memories of early childhood is startling and evocative. She remembers, for example how things smelled - surely an important but usually forgotten aspect of childhood - how people smelled (and some were evidently quite awful.) She remembers how interminable nap-time was, and how agonizingly boring. In fact, she first learned to tell time especially to know when her naps were over. Again and again I found myself thinking, "Oh yes - that is how things were; that is how it felt." Moments that I have forgotten for years - often very small and of no particular significance - light up and are vividly before me again.
There are the familiar things, but also some that are just the opposite. Most of her young years were spent in what was then Southern Rhodesia in the early years of the twentieth century, on a farm of sorts. Her parents had little by current American standards - many of our entertainments, on which we spend so much time, did not yet exist, and her parents had little money, were no great success at farming. She loved exploring the bush, alone or with her brother; sometimes with her father, and others. And even when little, she was quite confident of her ability to take care of herself there. My childhood, despite the horrors that surrounded me - WWII was just starting when I was born - was considerably, almost immeasurably, more conventional and comfortable and apparently safe. But the safety was illusory, only secretly so; and its loss cost me dearly. I see in the scenes of Lessing's late childhood the strength and delight in living that I missed. For me the point in mentioning this is not that I missed it, but that she expresses it so well, shares and makes it accessible; and this allows me to savor it and understand in its depths a life that was and is very different from mine.
She speaks without evident self-consciousness of things that most of us censor - her immense joy in her body, its beauty and the simple pleasure she took in her own vitality. To me there is almost total innocence in these pages; the innocence of clear sight and simplicity. She just tells her life.
When she moves into her adult years the territory is more familiar. Here what she did, specifically, and the various movements and groups she participated in, the people she knew, and her progress as a writer all become more important. But she does not draw back from the inner view and ordinary details that give the rest a rich and living context.
I am deeply grateful that someone of such intelligence and writing ability has been willing to create this work. It is one thing to look at the outside of a life - a person's acts and creations; but to see their ground and source - that is a rare gift.
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Yesterday evening I encountered some writing so bad that it threw me into despair about the entire business of trying to express my own thoughts. Here is an excerpt:
"This understanding of commoditization as discursive process can be linked to Austinian notions of performativity as expanded by Judith Butler. In [an] essay, … Butler puts forth a scenario of the interpellating call of culture that "initiates the individual into the subjected status of subject"
This writer quoted several others and I followed where the searches led - into site after site littered with the same sort of cobbled together words and expressions. Perhaps the problem was that I'd wandered into an area of scholarship and specialized vocabulary that I'm almost totally unacquainted with. Perhaps I'm voicing the standard layman's complaint, "What are they saying? Why can't they just talk in English?" But another aspect is the trickyness of it all - the new terms, the long and convoluted sentences that hint at profound insights just around the next semi-colon. And I began to wonder, with stomach churning apprehension, "Do I write like that?" Is it all just a bunch of trash that is already smelling pretty bad? The answer is, I don't know, and the fear of it troubles me deeply.
Later in the same piece there was this paragraph:
"Demand is, in a sense, transmuted desire. To create demand for a commodity, one must first create desire for it. Desire, that is, in the straightforward sense of a wish or longing, a want. Even in this straightforward sense, desire is predicated on something outside the self, something to want. Desire, is a manifestation of self/other dynamics. There must be something outside the self that is wanted in order for desire to exist. Since the most basic human site of self/other engagement is in and through sexuality, desire is often, perhaps inherently, implicated in the economy of erotic exchange. As a manifestation of self/other dynamics, which are inherently eroticized, desire is shadowed with erotic meanings."
I have moments of thinking this is thought generated out of a mere need to think (a need to produce a paper for a course?) I have had dreams in which some small, peripheral image is suddenly focused on, and by dint of that focus, begins to multiply, sometimes uncontrollably. For example, once I dreamed that I wanted to find my yellow shirt and could not. Then I looked in a closet, and there it was. And as I put my hand on it and moved it, there was another yellow shirt behind the first, and then another, and yet another. Great comfort: plenty of yellow shirts. There are moments when I wonder if this is what reality really is - an ever-expanding vastness filled with discoveries that are actually our own minds' creations, and creations that in turn create the vastness that contains them. I suspect that the reality of academia, at least, is exactly like that.
At the same time that paragraph is Buddhism turned inside out. Instead of looking for the root of suffering, and finding it in desire, it proceeds in the exact opposite direction - to the theory of the creation of desire where none existed before (and suffering is not even considered.) The best statement is, "desire is predicated on something outside the self…" and that, in that context made Buddhism's non-dualism feel like water in the desert, some sort of healing salve on a painful burn. What a relief.
But how much am I adding sand to this desert of words? To what extent are all my ideas and the effort I put into expressing them just more of this stuff, expressing and increasing suffering?
To comfort myself a bit, before I went to sleep I read from the first volume of Doris Lessing's autobiography. That is real writing, and it helps me to know that whether or not I write well, whether or not I can say anything, at least someone can -
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