The Weight of the Soul

That the soul was not a fact, a simple thing you were, and possessed, had seemed to Sandro so reasonable. Still he believed it. That reality, in a sense, was not an objective place where you were thrust. You had to maintain your hold on it by vigilantly keeping watch over whatever slight and intangible thing gave your life its meaning. Call it a soul, or presence. Whatever it was, a prisoner or guest and you had to trick it or petition it into lingering … People weighted themselves, Sandro knew, if not with stones … A movie, a lover. Friends. Complicities. A certain amount of success. These were decent crutches, provided they could be changed up often enough. And art, of course. Making art was really about the problem of the soul, of losing it. It was a technique for inhabiting the world. For not dissolving into it.

- Rachel Kushner, The Flamethrowers

Elegance is Simplicity

MR. COELHO: Elegance is simplicity. I believe that we need to be elegant, because people confound elegance with fashion.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.

MR. COELHO: And that has nothing to do. I learned about elegance not because I was reading about fashion, blah, blah, blah. Because one day I was in Japan and I saw a just totally empty house. And then they have a small detail like, a flower arrangement, or a painting.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.

MR. COELHO: And the rest is empty. And I said, oh, my God. What is this? This guy, it was my publisher.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.

MR. COELHO: And he said — I will never forget — he said, “This is elegance.” I said, “Elegance?” He said, “Yes, because here, there’s only one detail that you can pay attention. And, because of this elegance is to get rid of all the superfluous things and focus in the most beautiful one.” In this case it was this flower arrangement. So, for me, when I looked at the mountains to the Alps here...

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.

MR. COELHO: ...that was the line. And I see this white snow and I said, oh, my God, God could have created snow as a rainbow, you know, full of colors. But then this would be a disaster.

MS. TIPPETT: [laughs].

MR. COELHO: You know? Because the beauty of the snow is because it has only one color. The beautiful desert that I — I love deserts, by the way.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.

MR. COELHO: I spent forty days in the Mojave Desert back in 1989, and it was so magical, so magical, so magical. So every time that I travel, I visit the desert. But then back to elegance, elegance is that. Is to go to the core of beauty, and the core of beauty is simplicity.

-from the On Being podcast interview with Paulo Coelho

Your Thousand Selves

Harry finds in himself a human being, that is to say, a world of thoughts and feelings, of culture and tamed or sublimated nature, and besides this he finds within himself also a wolf, that is to say, a dark world of instinct, of savagery and cruelty, of unsublimated or raw nature. In spite of this apparently clear division of his being between two spheres, hostile to one another, he has known happy moments now and then when the man and the wolf for a short while were reconciled with one another. Suppose that Harry tried to ascertain in any single moment of his life, any single act, what part the man had in it and what part the wolf, he would find himself at once in a dilemma, and his whole beautiful wolf-theory would go to pieces. For there is not a single human being ... who is so conveniently simple that his being can be explained as the sum of two or three principal elements; and to explain so complex a man as Harry by the artless division into wolf and man is a hopelessly childish attempt. Harry consists of a hundred or a thousand selves, not of two. His life oscillates, as everyone's does, not merely between two poles, such as the body and the spirit, the saint and the sinner, but between thousand and thousands.
We need not be surprised that even so intelligent and educated a man as Harry should take himself for a Steppenwolf and reduce the rich and complex organism of his life to a formula so simple, so rudimentary and primitive. Man is not capable of thought in any high degree, and even the most spiritual and highly cultivated of men habitually sees the world and himself through the lenses of delusive formulas and artless simplifications—and most of all himself. For it appears to be an inborn and imperative need of all men to regard the self as a unit. However often and however grievously this illusion is shattered, it always mends again ... And if ever the suspicion of their manifold being dawns upon men of unusual powers and of unusually delicate perceptions, so that, as all genius must, they break through the illusion of the unity of the personality and perceive that the self is made up of a bundle of selves ... every ego, so far from being a unity is in the highest degree a manifold world, a constellated heaven, a chaos of forms, of states and stages, of inheritances and potentialities. It appears to be a necessity as imperative as eating and breathing for everyone to be forced to regard this chaos as a unity and to speak of his ego as though it were a one-fold and clearly detached and fixed phenomenon.

- from Steppenwolf, Herman Hesse

Brandishing a Glimpse

I shall admit that I have always had an innate weakness for shabby clothes and so inured am I by now to holes and so on and I have become quite impervious to the offense of alarm or unease or pity such thread-worn garbs might occasionally cause in others. I remember once years ago seeing a French girl in Dublin wearing a light coloured corduroy coat which had large stains down the front of it, on both sides of the zip, and the stains were very dark as if they had come from the pulp of a dark fruit such as a damson or perhaps some elderberries and when I was first introduced to this French girl with the filthy corduroy coat I couldn’t take my eyes off these decadent blossoms of deepest crimson that thrived on both sides of the zip and whenever I met her on subsequent occasions I'd always feel a bit put out and slightly bored if she wasn’t wearing it. I thought those stains were quite exquisite and exciting somehow - as if she were brandishing a glimpse of herself in process; they were so vivid and unashamed.

 

- from Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett

 

 

Read a Ton, Write a Ton (Advice from Elmore)

I attended only one writer’s conference in my life. It was close to home in New York City, held in a college during the semester break. Following my printed schedule, I went to a classroom to listen to a famous thriller author talk about his path to publication. It was a packed room, so I had to take a seat in the back. I noticed an old man sitting next to me. He leaned over and whispered, ‘You spend a lot of money on this, kid?’

‘You could say that.’ I’d spent nine hundred dollars I didn’t have at the time.

‘You see all these people?’ he said, pointing at the back of everyone’s heads.

‘Yeah.’

‘None of them will ever be writers. Come back here in ten years and you’ll see the same faces.’

‘Do me a favor. Hold onto your money. You want to be a writer?’

I nodded, hoping the guy would quiet down once the author started talking.

‘Then go home and do two things. Read a ton. Then write a ton. That’s all there is to it.’

I quietly thanked him for the advice, enjoyed the talk by the thriller author, and attended as many sessions that morning as I could. Imagine my surprise when I saw that old man during the lunch event stride up to the podium when he was introduced as the key speaker for the day.

That man was Elmore Leonard.

 - as read on Bob Bly's blog

 

 

Fantasies of Danger and Solitude

Needless to say since this particular novel is in fact the journal of the last person alive there are no other human characters in the book, which was a real treat, and I found it peculiar that somewhere on the sleeve, someone, an esteemed critic I gather, had described the book as dystopian fiction because it’s not as if the woman’s circumstances are portrayed apocalyptically and overall she does not suffer a great deal. That’s not to say her predicament is construed romantically or becomes rarefied and nauseatingly didactic, not at all; this is very much a book about survival, and the grievous psychological ramifications and gruelling practical exigencies occasioned by confinement in this recently depopulated environment are in fact delineated with acuity and care. However, the profound existential and cosmological repercussions precipitated by such extraordinary isolation are also beautifully charted and it is quite impossible to stop reading because in a sense you want to go where she is going; you want to be undone in just the way she is being undone. Indeed, it is like a last daydream from childhood in many ways because hopefully the world for a child is mostly sticks and mountains and huge lone birds and as such almost all of childhood is taken up hopefully with just these kinds of boundless fantasies of danger and solitude.

- Claire-Louise Bennett in her book Pond, discussing the novel The Wall by Marlen Haushofer

That Something That Terrifies Us ... Amid Blood and Mortal Wounds

The mention of Trakl made Amalfitano think, as he went through the motions of teaching a class, about a drugstore near where he lived in Barcelona, a place he used to go when he needed medicine for Rosa. One of the employees was a young pharmacist, barely out of his teens, extremely thin and with big glasses, who would sit up at night reading a book when the pharmacy was open twenty-four hours. One night, while the kid was scanning the shelves, Amalfitano asked him what books he liked and what book he was reading, just to make conversation. Without turning, the pharmacist answered that he liked books like The Metamorphosis, Bartleby, A Simple Heart, A Christmas Carol. And then he said that he was reading Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Leaving aside the fact that A Simple Heart and A Christmas Carol were stories, not books, there was something revelatory about the taste of this bookish young pharmacist, who in another life might have been Trakle or who in this life might still be writing poems as desperate as those of his distant Austrian counterpart, and who clearly inarguably preferred minor works to major ones. He chose The Metamorphosis over The Trial, he chose Bartleby over Moby-Dick, he chose A Simple Heart over Boulevard and Pécuchet, and A Christmas Carol over A Tale of Two Cities or The Pickwick Papers. What a sad paradox, thought Amalfitano. Now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown. They choose the perfect exercises of the great masters. Or what amounts to the same thing: they want to watch the great masters spar, but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against that something, that something, that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.

- from 2666, Robert Bolaño

Poetry, The Only Uncontaminated

What kind of music do you like? asked Amalfitano. Classical music, Professor, Vivaldi, Cimarosa, Bach. And what books do you read? I used to read everything, Professor, I read all the time. Now all I read is poetry. Poetry is the one thing that isn’t contaminated, the one thing that isn’t part of the game. I don’t know if you follow me, Professor. Only poetry -and let me be clear, only some of it- is good for you, only poetry isn’t shit.

-from 2666, Robert Bolaño 

Place of Emergence: Where Souls Are Born

In the kiva, as it has always existed, are stone benches around the wall, a fireplace and a draft deflecting stone which probably also has theological meaning, and above all a crease called the sipapu in the floor. This is the Place of Emergence, the notch through which souls enter the visible universe, climbing out of the mothering earth by way of the kiva's ladder and so entering the surface life of the world. In the Hopi and Pueblo world scheme, life comes only through the sipapu and sipapuni of the kivas of the Southwest. The sipapu is therefore the earth's vagina, the place where souls are born, each one in the lodge appropriate to its clan and its totem. Through the sipapu and up the ladder climbs all the energy and ambiguity of humankind ... I love big cities as much as any other urban decadent, and would find it hard to imagine life without the urban tumult and smell of spiritual and footpad danger. Just the same it has to be said that in big cities there are no sipapu. Mother becomes Ma becomes Mom. The city separates its citizens from the necessity of believing earth to be the chief of mothers. There are so many diverse trades in the big town, and it is from these, from the interaction between them, from the traffic of intentions rather than from the phases of the earth, that all plenty and all birth seems to derive.  

- Thomas Keneally, author of Schindler's list, in his book The Place Where Souls are Born

Not as You Are but ...

Father Valiant began pacing restlessly up and down as he spoke, and the Bishop watched him, musing. It was just this in his friend that was dear to him. “Where there is great love there are always miracles,” he said at length. “One might almost always say that an apparition is human vision corrected by divine love. I do not see you as you really are, Joseph; I see you through my affection for you.

- from Death Comes for the Archbishop, Willa Cather

When Viewing Art, Repress the Ineluctable Reply

So true. A scene from Claire-Louise Bennett's Pond as she reflects on her refusal to view a work of art in front of someone: 

I didn't want to look at the pieces in front of him, I wanted to be alone, because in that way I wouldn't have to come up with something to say about them. In circumstances when an impression is extended for the benefit of the person looming nearby, whatever is said is rarely anything at all evocative, and the moment it is said something intrinsic is circumvented, and cannot be recaptured later on.

 

Parent Penitent

‘Forgive me, Lucy,’ he says.
‘Forgive you? For what?’ She is smiling, lightly, mockingly. 
‘For being one of the two mortals assigned to usher you into the world and for not turning out to be a better guide.’

- Disgrace, J. M. Coetzee

The Sweet-Bitter Irony

He continues to teach because it provides him with a livelihood; also because it teaches him humility, brings it home to him who he is in the world. The irony does not escape him: that the one who comes to teach learns the keenest of lessons, while those who come to learn learn nothing.

- from Disgrace, J.M. Coetzee

Claire-Louise Bennett Grappling with the Profundity of Words

English, strictly speaking, is not my first language by the way. I haven't yet discovered what my first language is so for the time being I use English words in order to say things. I expect I will always have to do it that way; regrettably I don't think my first language can be written down at all. I'm not sure it can be made external you see. I think it has to stay where it is; simmering in the elastic gloom betwixt my flickering organs.

- from Pond by Claire-Louise Bennet

Homogenized by Highways

Sandro said highways primed us for a separation from place, from actual life. The autostrada replaced life with road signs and place names. A white background and black lettering. MILANO. A reduction, Sandro said, to nothing but names. 
“No different than here,” I said. “You might as well deplore all highways.” 
He concealed it was true, but said America was supposed to be a place ruined and homogenized by highways, that that was its unique character, crass and vulgar sameness.

- from The Flamethrowers, Rachel Kushner