Loneliness: Fuel for Imagination

INTERVIEWER

Istanbul conveys the sense that you have always been a very lonely figure. You are certainly alone as a writer in modern Turkey today. You grew up and continue to live in a world from which you are detached.

PAMUK

Although I was raised in a crowded family and taught to cherish the community, I later acquired an impulse to break away. There is a self-destructive side to me, and in bouts of fury and moments of anger I do things that cut me off from the pleasant company of the community. Early in life I realized that the community kills my imagination. I need the pain of loneliness to make my imagination work. And then I’m happy. But being a Turk, after a while I need the consoling tenderness of the community, which I may have destroyed. Istanbul destroyed my relationship with my mother—we don’t see each other anymore. And of course I hardly ever see my brother. My relationship with the Turkish public, because of my recent comments, is also difficult.

-  Orhan Pamuk, The Art of Fiction No. 187, The Paris Review

Sontag's Idea of a Writer

My idea of a writer: someone interested in "everything." I'd always had interests of many kinds, so it was natural for me to conceive of the vocation of a writer in this way. And reasonable to suppose that such fervency would find more scope in a great metropolis than in any variant of provincial life, including the excellent universities I had attended.

- Against Interpretation and Other Essays, Susan Sontag

Liberating Oneself from the Power of Others

Recently I was at a conference, and one of the men at the conference was very powerful, and very preoccupied with power, much like a teenager might be occupied with power, except that he was considerably older.

I experienced this as he was introduced to me and he said, “How ya doing Ram?” I spent time with him and saw that he had decided in his mind that I was irrelevant. Everything I stood for was irrelevant, and I felt my irrelevance in his presence, and I watched that pour through me. I watched myself get caught in it at first, so that I started to crunch up into irrelevance and get slightly deviant. Those are the ways I responded to irrelevancy in his mind about me.

Then I saw my predicament, saved by my meditation bell, and I saw what I was doing. I saw my mind buy his model of myself, and just the noticing of that started to loosen its hold over me. He had brought me into the dimension of power, and found me wanting. He found that I was not powerful enough to be important in his eyes, and I just sat with it, and I felt what it felt like to be irrelevant and somewhat litigious. I just noticed all this, and slowly as I noticed it, and just allowed it. I didn’t push it away, I didn’t make believe that it didn’t exist, I just noticed and allowed it.

Very subtly, just like the way clouds sometimes just break up, it just started to sort of dissolve, and as it dissolved I started to be more quiet and see the way things are, and see the way I had given my power over to him.

I had given him the power to define who I am. I had looked in his eyes literally and said, “Am I enough?” and he said, “No.” I worked with it. It caught me during that day and we were together all weekend, so it wasn’t easy. That first day, he really had me, and I noticed myself edging away from him, and when I’d look at him, I’d get tight. I’d watch him and I found myself with other people showing that “I was somebody.” I mean the poignancy of our predicament is incredibly bittersweet.

Now, I have practices I have developed over the years of taking people who get to me and working with them. I take them into my meditation practice, Metta meditation. I imagined him sitting across from me, and me saying over and over, “May you be free from danger, may you be free from physical suffering, may you be free from mental suffering, may you know ease of well-being.”

By the time I had finished the meditation, I could bring him to mind, and I felt that my heart didn’t close down, but could stay open. There’s a beautiful quote from Kabir, that says, “Do what you do with another human being but never put them out of your heart.” But it’s not always that easy. I saw that my heart had closed down and engaged with my mind. The next day, there he was again, and I felt a flicker in my heart, but I went up to him and said, “Good morning,” looking directly at him. I was right there with it, and there was enough quietness in me so that even though the reactions or the tightening and the bravado were happening, I was right there with it.

I just looked at him and was just with him and suddenly, it was as if the thing you’re so afraid of just dissolves in front of you. It just went away, and I was just there with another being, who had his stuff, but his stuff no longer engaged my mind. I didn’t enjoy him, but I saw he was a good person, trying to do good.

- Ram Dass (thanks to my friend Charlie Johnson for messaging me this)

Friend of Your Youth

The Friend of Your Youth is the only friend you will ever have, for he does not really see you. He sees in his mind a face that does not exist anymore, speaks a name – Spike, Bud, Snip, Red, Rusty, Jack, Dave – which belongs to that now nonexistent face but which by some inane doddering confusion of the universe is for the moment attached to a not happily met and boring stranger. But he humors the drooling doddering confusion of the universe and continues to address politely that dull stranger by the name which properly belongs to the boy face and to the time when the boy voice called thinly across the late afternoon water or murmured by a campfire at night or in the middle of a crowded street said, “Gee, listen to this–’On Wenlock Edge the wood’s in trouble; His forest fleece the Wrekin heaves–’” The Friend of Your Youth is your friend because he does not see you anymore.
And perhaps he never saw you. What he saw was simply part of the furniture of the wonderful opening world. Friendship was something he suddenly discovered and had to give away as a recognition of and payment for the breathlessly opening world which momently divulged itself like a moonflower. It didn’t matter a damn to whom he gave it, for the fact of giving was what mattered, and if you happened to be handy you were automatically endowed with all the appropriate attributes of a friend and forever after your reality is irrelevant. The Friend of Your Youth is the only friend you will ever have, for he hasn’t the slightest concern with calculating his interest or your virtue. He doesn’t give a damn, for the moment, about Getting Ahead or Needs Must Admiring the Best, the two official criteria in adult friendships, and when the boring stranger appears, he puts out his hand and smiles (not really seeing your face) and speaks your name (which doesn’t really belong to your face), saying, “Well, Jack, damned glad you came, come on in, boy!"

- All the King's Men, Robert Penn Warren

Your Life as Art

For me the artist simply means one who can transform ordinary life into a beautiful creation, with his craft. But I did not mean creation strictly applied only to the arts. I meant creation in life, the creation of a child, a garden, a house, a dress. I was referring to creativity in all its aspects. Not only the actual products of art, but the faculty for healing, consoling, raising the level of life, transforming it by our own efforts. 

- Anais Nin, from Breathing On Your Own by Richard Kehl 

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.