On Reading

I want to take a step back here and talk about synchronicity. In my blog about Still Life I mentioned how surprised I was when I stumbled across a long passage referencing Dawkin’s concepts as presented in The Selfish Gene which I also happened to be reading at the time. If you’ve read the last few blogs, you may have noticed that I’ve inadvertently been reading a string of books about war, why men go to war, what happens when they try to come back.

This often happens to me. Books chosen at random turn out to have a common theme or to explore related concepts. They seem—as one of my friends put it—to be conversing with each other through me. For example, I’ve also been reading a lot of Robert Frost’s poems and critical works on him to prepare for the poetry discussion I’m leading. A couple of themes resonated with another book I was reading at the same time, The Likeness which is Tana French’s second book. I blogged about her first book In the Woods a few weeks ago.

Frost was greatly influenced by Emerson. Frost’s poems about hard-working New Englanders who swing axes at alders, cut posts, mend walls, pick apples, tap maples and plough snow illustrate Emerson’s law of compensation from his essay, “Power”: “Nothing is got for Nothing.” This reminded me of where a character in French’s book quotes a Spanish proverb: “Take what you want and pay for it, says God.” He goes on to rail about our modern culture, so good at taking what we want, so bad about paying the price.

Lexie, another character in French’s book, moves through life like a shark, always on the go. She is incapable of thinking about the past, never looking back at the wake she leaves behind. Lexie reminded me of a story Wolf once told me of seeing a man, who from his mismatched layers of clothing was apparently living rough, buy a used paperback and walk off down the street reading it. As he finished the first page, he tore it out and threw it over his shoulder. As he finished the next page, he tore it out and again tossed it over his shoulder. And so on down the street, leaving a trail of abandoned story behind him.

This attitude toward the past reminded me of a quote from Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” that greatly influenced Frost: “Life only avails, not the having lived.” Power is to be found in movement, in transition. In “The Wood-Pile” the speaker comes across a cord of maple wood that had been cut and stacked and then abandoned, left to rot and be covered in weeds “To warm the frozen swamp as best it could/With the slow smokeless burning of decay.” You could say that even in repose the wood-pile is changing, but its burning is smokeless. It has lost the power it once possessed. This power is similar to Bergson’s concept of élan vitale which Frost, who had read Bergson’s work, used often in his prose to describe the force that animates life and poetry. By yet another odd coincidence, we had just been studying Bergson in the Philosophy Book Club I attend.

We’ve also been studying various philosophers who have addressed the problem of what we can actually know of the things of this world, whether our senses are reliable, whether things actually exist independently of our perceptions of them, whether somewhere outside of our knowledge things exist in their ideal form. Again, Frost reminded me of these discussions. One of his early poems is “The Demiurge’s Laugh” where the narrator is checked in his joyful flight through the woods in pursuit of what was “no true god.” In Gnosticism, the Demiurge is a god of limited ability who has created this flawed world of ours that is only a shadow of a higher reality. In Frost’s “After Apple-Picking”, the narrator speaks of seeing the world through the thin sheet of ice he has lifted from the surface of the water trough, a wonderful metaphor of our flawed perception of the things of this world.

It’s also a metaphor of the vast gap between things themselves and our words for them, Foucault’s Les mots et les choses, the theme powering the series of books by A.S. Byatt that I’ve been reading and blogging about, particularly Still Life. Perhaps these coincidences are not so significant. Perhaps it is simply that these are concepts that many writers are concerned with. Still, I like the idea of books conversing through my reading of them.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>