Saturday, October 22, 2011

Courage and Silence

I have a new reason for avoiding my dissertation and it is one I am loathe to confess. A few years ago I was delighted by the silence constructed and maintained by the Ramsays in To the Lighthouse. I marveled then at their proficiency in circumlocution. I still see the love there and I am not entirely disenchanted. Or, if I am disenchanted, then it is in the best of possible ways: I see how Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay are not magical; they are, insofar as fictional characters can be, terribly, wonderfully human and they fail and succeed as other humans do.

When I last read the pre-prandial conversation between Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, I found myself wishing they’d said more, that they’d challenged themselves and each other more. Specifically, I wish Mr. Ramsay had said to her—

Then, he wanted to tell her that when he was wakling on the terrace just now—here he became uncomfortable, as if he wer breaking into that solitude, that aloofness, that remoteness of hers. . . . But she pressed him. What had he wanted to tell her, she asked, thinking it was about going to the Lighthouse; that he was sorry that he had said “Damn you.” But no. He did not like to see her look so sad, he said. Only wool gathering, she protested, flushing a little. They both felt uncomfortable, as if they did not know whether to go on or go back. She had been reading fairy tales to James, she said. No, they could not share that; they could not say that.

I see now, as I did not see before, that this is a failure in the silent communication between Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay. Intimacy requires a willingness to brave discomfort for the other. The other things Mr.and Mrs. Ramsay resist mentioning—the bill for the greenhouse roof, the possibility that Mr. Ramsay would have written better books had he not married, and the things they do discuss instead—Andrew’s future, Prue’s beauty, the flowers—are part of a shared conversation they’ve built over time. The bit quoted above shows a spot of tenderness, something that resists even a careful eye or a gentle finger. They have no conversation to cover over this tender spot, this bruise in their union. Now, a few years after my first readings of To the Lighthouse, I find I wish Mr. Ramsay had been brave and forged ahead, had told Mrs. Ramsay how he felt about her solitude, about that fundamental remoteness from which he could never protect her; I find I wish Mrs. Ramsay had been strong and acknowledged her thoughts; had told her husband that she thought, first, that “there was no treachery too base for the world to commit, that “no happiness lasted.” That she  thought, shortly thereafter, watching the light, that “she had known happiness, exquisite happiness, intense happiness,” and ended in an ecstasy of “It is enough! It is enough!”

Had she known how it pained him to feel their fundamental separateness, would she have seen his concern differntly? Had he known that in her separateness she was capable of holding nadirs and zeniths, would he have seen her protectiveness differently?

I am being made to see that I needed the Ramsays’ silences to justify my own. Moreover, now that I am finding that explicit speech is sometimes required, I am newly critical of the Ramsays. I had not realized that my dissertation was an attempt to affirm my own proclivities, and now I see that, at least in part, it has been so. This makes me more than a little uncomfortable and I am uncertain how to move forward.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

A Mind of One's Own

Perhaps one of the greatest obstacles to writing a dissertation, particularly a dissertation in the humanities (or so it feels to the one writing such a dissertation), is the absolute triviality of it all. No life will be saved if I complete my dissertation. No cancer cured nor heartbreak mended. The world will continue spinning and the universe will continue expanding whether or not I finish and no word I write will make the world spin any faster or the universe achieve its doom any sooner.

My life, generally speaking, is much the same. Some people feel stress because they are pulled in too many directions and bear too many responsibilities. Others feel stress because they are pulled only ever inwardly and bear no responsibilities to others. No more that is, than the very thin responsibility to not be an asshole, or the the very vague responsibility to commit to justice and things for everyone. No one depends upon me for anything. If I do not earn a living, no stomach will suffer but my own. If I do not make something of myself, no person's pride will suffer but my own. If I decide to hide myself in the deepest solitude, no one will be affected. If I ruin myself with hard living, no one stands to be disappointed. In this way I am very, very free. I am entirely free to mean and be nothing. This is, I find, a very burdensome freedom.

My response to such freedom has been indulgent self-pity--yes, I am free to wallow, as well. Instead, I might take a cue from artists, as described by Virginia Woolf.
Further, accentuating all these difficulties [those that attend the creation of a work of genius] and making them harder to bear is the world's notorious indifference. It does not ask people to write poems and novels and histories; it does not need them. It does not care whether Flaubert finds the right word or whether Carlyle scrupulously verifies this or that fact. Naturally, it will not pay for what it does not want.
 But I care that Flaubert has found his word, my mind cried out. The world is a poorer, dimmer place if he has not! And that is precisely why and how I and my dissertation can matter. Not in a splashy and important way. We are not, after all, relativity, or a categorical imperative, or the enthymeme. But in a very small way (because I am, myself, very small) I can matter in ways parallel to those in which Flaubert's word matters. No belly goes empty whether Flaubert finds or does not find his word. No cancer cured. I am free to live a life of genius, a life full of moral beauty. No one's needs stand in my way and others can only help, not hinder, my project. The world is indifferent, yes. The world will not pay for the life I want to create. I need to remember that I don't need it to do so. The world will not pay for a line of Flaubert, either, but I wouldn't want to live in a world made up only of things that achieved value in this way.

There is another world. A secret world. An invisible world filled to bursting with invisible value. In this world, empires topple when the right word is not found. There are cancers of the soul for which only the only cure is some expression of aesthetic genius. I am wretchedly free in this art-indifferent world and must learn to bear my responsibilities elsewhere.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

"Aye, aye, Starbuck, 'tis sweet to lean sometimes"

I had a glass of wine with M on Friday. I told her I was reasonably certain I had decided upon a therapist to see.
"But k," she said, "you hate shrinks."

"Not true—I never knew any." 
She asked why I had decided to see a Shrink Lady, and I told her how difficult it is to be truly close to someone. It's not so much that I hate intimacy, I said, I just don't see the point. M laughed very hard at this.

Relying upon others is very difficult. Be that as it may, even Captain Ahab could not avoid it. At the end of Moby-Dick, the Pequod chases the white whale for three days before meeting its final doom. The whale has chewed through another ship and has destroyed Ahab's leg for a second time. Ahab, finding it difficult to stand on his splintered ivory leg, relies upon Starbuck, first mate, moral hero, and only member of the crew willing to question Ahab's judgment. 
But when he was helped to the deck, all eyes were fastened upon him; as instead of standing by himself he still half-hung upon the shoulder of Starbuck, who had thus far been the foremost to assist him. His ivory leg had been snapped off, leaving but one short sharp splinter.

"Aye, aye, Starbuck, 'tis sweet to lean sometimes, be the leaner who he will; and would old Ahab had leaned oftener than he has."
Had old Ahab learned to lean, he might have unwoven the curse that overhung his head.

It is, naturally, untrue to say that Ahab depended upon no one. He needed his crew, for example. Had they mutinied, he could not have carried out his monomaniacal plan. He needed the owners of the ship to recognize his ability and entrust the ship and crew to his leadership. Etc. etc. Needing others is not the same as leaning on them. When Ahab leans on Starbuck, he—without asking—shifts the burden of his weight onto Starbucks's shoulder so that, temporarily, Starbuck bears his own weight and that of Ahab.

As he rests upon Starbuck's shoulder, Ahab seems to recognize how very different he might have been—more like Starbuck, perhaps—had he leaned oftener on others. Had he shared his burdens with friends or with his wife; had he married sooner; had he chased after human company instead of a whale that cared nothing for him: had he been otherwise, perhaps all else would have been otherwise. Ahab seems to see this and forbids Starbuck from chasing Moby Dick. If only Starbuck can be kept safe, sent back to his loving family, then perhaps Ahab can be redeemed. In the end of course, Starbuck is forever separated from his beloved Mary, and it is indeed Ahab's fault. 

So this is why I am seeing the Shrink Lady. I want to learn to lean on others before it is too late. Who knows how many others I might hurt by refusing to depend upon anyone?

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Book I have finally read*


*one does not finish Moby-Dick; one may read every word and still find it unfinished. 

what is accomplishment?

The number one obstacle to my writing here is the fact that I have not yet finished reading Moby-Dick. I am at chapter 127, about fifty pages from the end of the book, and I have not yet finished reading it. 

I haven't read Moby-Dick for weeks. Reading this book has taken me the better part of a year, and not because the book is long. I read a bit and then spend weeks or months away from it, away from the catalogs and lists and asides and reflections; away from the doomed pursuit of that awful whale. 

For months I have been imagining the blog post I will write after having finished the book: Book I have finally finished will be the title. The content: Moby-Dick. That will be the entirety of the post. Nothing to it, but the thought of writing it gives me such satisfaction. 

I both long for and dread the completion of this book. I want to have read it, to be able to say "I have read Moby-Dick." A check next to the title and I can move on to some other beautiful piece of literature. Still, I know I have not yet finished this book for the same reason I can't bring myself to read Titus Andronicus, Timon of Athens, and the rest of the sonnets--I don't ever want Moby-Dick, or the corpus of Shakespeare's writings to be complete. I want to sail in the unmolested Pequod forever, always in search of that legendary whale, my days filled with hard work alternating with peace and unparalleled beauty. I don't want to have to think of the next stage of my life off of that ship, beyond the ship, in a world in which the ship no longer even exists.

Imagine an Ahab for whom possession and dominion were not paramount. Unimaginable, I suppose. I know that, having read Moby-Dick once, I will not have possessed the book, will not have cracked it open and forced its secrets from it, will not have unwoven the rainbow and pinned its every miracle to some eternal mounting board. In a world with so many books I have not yet read, how can I avoid behaving as though this were the case? Who has the time to absorb through unpossessive rereadings and many meditations the miracles of even one book? Of even one poem, ever? 

The Pequod in which I am sailing cannot be eternal. The best I can do is to follow Ishmael and continue to re-visit the tale of Moby-Dick. Future rereadings (which I already anticipate) will never have the quality of that first voyage. The memory of that first voyage will color every future visit, adding layers of experience and sentiment and meaning. I will do well to look forward to this; I must keep Ishmael in mind: if I do not leave the Pequod, I will die thereupon.

Friday, October 14, 2011

480 tampons later...

So, I guess I'm going to see a therapist. The first thing I did when I got home after my meeting today? Naturally I went straight to Amazon to buy tampons in bulk--organic, pesticide and bleach-free lady products. And then if you subscribe, you save even more money. So I'll have two years worth of tampons in about 6 months. Deal, right? And then I'll cancel the subscription for a year. Because I'm smart. 

What is still a little fuzzy is the relationship between ladyproducts and therapy. It isn't as though the price of a bi-monthly box of tampons is enough to pay for my bi-weekly time with the therapist. I think my thought process was something like this: if I don't have to budget for ladyproducts, I can put that money into a different envelope and every bit helps, right? I won't even have to think about buying them, so that frees up the cash to pay for, say, laundry soap or cat litter or coffee filters, so I don't have to buy both in any one month...

Okay, so it doesn't exactly make tons of sense. But I'm clearly taking measures for my health and in a variety of arenas, so that's a good thing, right? And I'll probably be able to spot you a tampon if you need one, so there's that.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

a small measure of success

The philosophotarian kept to her budget this month. One down, forever to go...!

I have been desperately desiring a new tube of lipstick. The intensity of this desire is a little embarrassing, really. I have visited countless times, filling my online shopping basket and then closing the window just before purchasing. 

This month, I have been throwing away all catalogs as I receive them, not even allowing myself to look. I have unsubscribed to every email shopping alert I've received. I've planned out all my cash, stuck to my budget, turned down fun, cancelled plans for which I had no funds; I've seriously downgraded my coffee, made pantry stew (rather tasty), and cashed in gift cards. 

And I have been dying for a new lipstick. Ideally, it would be something swanky in lovely packaging--a Tom Ford or a Dolce and Gabbana piece of art. I broke down yesterday. I took my "beauty/grooming" envelope and headed to the CVS, where I spent a little bit of the money I had already set aside for the haircut I'll need at the end of the month. After much looking and comparing, I found one. A drugstore lipstick. I haven't had one of those in ages. But this seems to be exactly what I wanted: not too shiny; no pearl or metallic element; not matte, either; just a bit more than the natural color of my lips and it doesn't smell too bad. And it was under ten dollars. 

I shouldn't get quite so much pleasure out of something so frivolous. I know this. It does make me feel more confident and hopeful about this budget as I prepare for month 2.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Poor Lamia

Do not all charms fly
At the mere touch of cold psychology?
That is the line, right? 

I will not develop an emotional relationship to the sun. The sun is a dull common thing for all its brightness—it simply is and I can do no more about it than I can about the oxygen content of the air I breathe or about the color of my eyes.

Given a world in which the sun, or the air, or my unimaginable future, or my inability to X or Y are simply the case, how shall I be? That is the far more interesting question. It doesn't matter at all how I feel about these things. Feelings are fleeting and unauthoritative. Shall I leave my job because I am irked with the clerk next door? Shall I tell So-and-so what I really think about her management skills? Of course not. I shall be mistress of my feelings and not vice versa.

That I feel something is not very interesting, and why I feel something only slightly more so. I am not, I confess, very interested in exploring either. If feelings masquerade as beliefs, then that is more interesting and worth exploring. If such beliefs present themselves as the kinds of facts recorded in the "dull catalogue of common things," then that is still more interesting and more worthy of exploration. 

How shall I live and keep the rainbow whole and the air full and haunted?