Quote of The Week

“It is curious – very curious – that physical courage should be so common in the world, and moral courage so rare.”

Mark Twain


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Repetition

Most jobs involve a lot of repetition. The mailman drives or walks the same route every day, the doctor hears about the same tedious symptoms, the teacher reviews the same course material year after year. We are a patient species, and almost robotic at times.

The traditional escape from this kind of boredom is to do something “creative.” But there aren’t many options. Vast numbers of young people want to be artists, writers or film makers because they imagine that repetition is no part of such work. They are wrong, of course. Most creative careers involve a kind of double jeopardy – you have to be original in a repetitious way.

Consider the work of a columnist or commentator (here it gets personal). He or she is supposed to come up with fresh ideas and viewpoints in a world which is endlessly the same. History repeats itself on the large scale, and society repeats itself on the small scale. Every journalist keeps a calendar that records the relentless cycle of the year, from Christmas to Valentines to Memorial Day, and on and on until Christmas comes round again. Every week is a new challenge, except that it is the same challenge all over again. Political commentators have the same problem or worse, because the antics of politicians are so utterly unoriginal and predictable.

In the course of writing a weekly or twice-weekly column for newspapers and radio for more than thirty years I have become something of an expert on repetition. I have written more than thirty essays about Christmas, for example, and about the same number on tax day, Memorial Day, and Labor Day. Memorial Day is coming up again, but what shall the topic be this year when sunshine and beaches and vacations have all been cancelled in advance? The possibilities are anything but endless, so I suppose I shall have to write something about the impossibilities of the coming summer. At least, this year, it won’t be repetition.

Quiet Week

Writers and artists often believe they could achieve more if their lives were quieter and less distracting. The coronavirus hysteria provides the perfect test of this theory.

The total lack of distraction in the past week was remarkable. Even the weather was calm and mild. The streets were empty and quiet. There was no temptation to go to the library or go shopping because everything was closed. I took some walks in the local nature reserve which was quiet, except for a few songbirds making their springtime declarations. Nothing went wrong in the house that called for outside help. I taught one hour-long online workshop and recorded one four-minute radio essay. The remaining 166 hours and 56 minutes of the week were all my own.

It was quiet.

This was my big chance to produce something new and creative and brilliant. Instead I did nothing, and achieved nothing. Perhaps others have done better, and perhaps we will look back on this moment of international neurosis as the beginning of a new creative Renaissance. But I rather doubt it.

All things considered, it was a very enjoyable week. At the end of it I decided to accept that I have reached an age when quiet is good, regardless of whether I get anything done or not.

Master of Confusion

Did Harold Pinter deserve the Nobel Prize for Literature? Of course he did! Plays like “The Caretaker” and “The Birthday Party” shook up my whole generation in the 1960s. We had never seen or heard anything like them.

Pinter was a master of meandering, oblique conversations and terrifying silences. His plays are about those secret fears that usually emerge only in nightmares. All his characters are desperately trying to stay awake. If you’ve never seen a Pinter play, this would be a good time. Revivals are popping up everywhere. Expect to be shaken by the experience.

Among all the newspaper reports I found a quotation from an interview published in The Paris Review back in 1966. Pinter was asked what made the talk in his plays so theatrically effective. This was his answer.

“I think possibly it’s because people fall back on anything they can lay their hands on verbally to keep away from the danger of knowing and being known.”

Thus in a single sentence Harold Pinter illuminated (for me) the mystery of meaningless talk. For years I’ve been overhearing conversations in public places, and on cell phones, that seem to make no sense whatsoever. They are just noise, like something out of a Pinter play.

ASTON – You said you wanted me to get you up.
DAVIES – What for?
ASTON – You said you were thinking of going to Sidcup.
DAVIES – Ay, that’d be a good thing, if I got there.
ASTON – Doesn’t look like much of a day.
DAVIES – Ay, well, that’s shot it, en’t it?
(from The Caretaker)

Talk for Pinter is not communication but concealment. It makes sense to me.

Always Something New

One of the many pleasures of being a writer is that you never have to think about one thing for very long. There’s always a new topic to learn about. Unless you write long textbooks on specialized subjects you will probably be starting on something completely fresh every few days, or at most every few weeks. Only journalism and teaching offer the same stimulation of constant novelty, and I’ve tried and enjoyed both of them.

The new start is the part of writing I like best. In the past few weeks I have “researched” hurricanes, the Italian Slow Food movement, golf, and meditation. Right now there’s a small heap of books about Chinese poetry on my desk, in preparation for an upcoming talk. “Researched” is in quotes because my fact-getting technique has more in common with journalism than any academic discipline. When a new topic comes up I hit the Internet and the library, shuffle through my own files, and consider the job done. Of course I’d have to work harder to prepare a more intellectual article or essay. But most of my writing is short and light. My mind is a broad and shallow swamp of trivia, all of which comes in useful sooner or later. Only the other day I was accused of being a “pseudo-intellectual” which, after some though, I decided to treat as a compliment.

This technique probably suits some people better than others. At school I was told that I had a “butterfly mind,” because I would never stay focused on one subject for very long. These days I would probably be diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder, and dosed with Ritalin. But ADD is the ideal condition for a freelance writer – if you have it, your mind keeps moving, and so do you. On the other hand it’s a terrible handicap for an academic researcher. So your weakness may be your strength, and vice versa.

Memories are Made of This?

The basement of a house is like the Freudian subconscious. It’s where we store all the things we cannot bear to throw away, but we don’t want to remember right now. It’s always a mistake to go poking around down there, but sometimes I can’t resist a little personal archaeology, a dig into the buried treasures of my life.

Our basement harbors a large closet assigned to “my stuff.” This category includes everything mechanical and electrical, plus all my personal files and souvenirs. A lot of memories are hiding in that closet – real personal history. I should have recalled Oscar Wilde’s epigram on this subject. “The only duty we owe to history,” he said, “Is to rewrite it.”

I rewrite history as I go along. My memory is highly selective in a positive way. I remember the good things and forget the bad and the boring. This may not make for an interesting autobiography, if I should ever write one, but it does make for better sleep. The closet was another matter.

Two boxes of memories came out of the closet. They contained all the things I couldn’t bring myself to throw away over the past thirty or forty years. They would be scrapbooks in embryo, if I was in the habit of making scrapbooks.

I took a deep breath, remembering the fate of Pandora, and plunged into the oldest and dustiest box.

It seems that all my memories are made of paper – no floppy disks, no material mementos or souvenirs, not so much as a ring or a lock of hair, or fur. The boxes are filled with letters, photographs, old writings, reviews and posters – nothing but paper. A splash of barbecue lighting fluid and a match would wipe out all my memories in a matter of seconds.

Would I miss my paper memories? I think not, or at least not yet. Perhaps, one day, bored in the nursing home I might say: “I wish I had all that old stuff to look through.” But not now.

The photographs were the most disturbing. Old color photos don’t fade the way black and whites used to, becoming sepia and “historic” and therefore harmless. They stay bright and sharp, embalming people in their Technicolor prime. It’s like The Picture of Dorian Gray in reverse. Nobody was as beautiful as memory paints them. Time has made them depressingly ordinary.

Old letters carry the same insidious payload of disappointment. Re-reading them, I realized that my old friends and I were never half as clever as we imagined. We were often dull, and trite, and pompous, and thoughtlessly sentimental. These letters cried out for a splash of lighting fluid and a match, and the same could be said of my own juvenile writings.

Some small things snapped my memory to attention, soundless soundbites from the past like Proust’s Madeleine: a card for my father’s funeral service; a wedding invitation from somebody I had intended to marry myself, but forgot; a restaurant menu that reminded me of a unique evening; a train ticket that recalled a serious error of judgment on the way to Amsterdam, my first dog, my first motor cycle, my first love. A lot of things had slipped my mind, including names that should have been engraved there forever. Have they forgotten my name too? That would be justice.

After going through one moldy old cardboard box of paper, I had uncovered so many real memories that my carefully constructed false memories were in serious jeopardy. Freud was right: repression is good. I’ll wait a while before I open the second box.

Amnesia is a great gift. It makes everything always new. That’s why we write against the sedimentation of life into moldy old boxes. We write to keep life alive. Memory has nothing to do with it.

Repetition

Most jobs involve a lot of repetition. The mailman drives or walks the same route every day, the doctor hears about the same tedious symptoms, the teacher reviews the same course material year after year. We are a patient species, and almost robotic at times.

The traditional escape from this kind of boredom is to do something “creative.” But there aren’t many options. Vast numbers of young people want to be artists, writers or film makers because they imagine that repetition is no part of such work. They are wrong, of course. Most creative careers involve a kind of double jeopardy – you have to be original in a repetitious way.

Consider the work of a columnist or commentator (here it gets personal). He or she is supposed to come up with fresh ideas and viewpoints in a world which is endlessly the same. History repeats itself on the large scale, and society repeats itself on the small scale. Every journalist keeps a calendar that records the relentless cycle of the year, from Christmas to Valentines to Memorial Day, and on and on until Christmas comes round again. Every week is a new challenge, except that it is the same challenge all over again. Political commentators have the same problem or worse, because the antics of politicians are so utterly unoriginal and predictable.

In the course of writing a weekly or twice-weekly column for newspapers and radio for more than thirty years I have become something of an expert on repetition. I have written more than thirty essays about Christmas, for example, and the same number about tax day April 15. One of the latter (from the past) is posted on this site under “Featured Essay.” But what shall it be this year? The possibilities are anything but endless.

This web page is a way of not thinking about it.

Literature for Dummies

The pleasures of winter are much exaggerated. When we talk about the log fires and the beautiful, bleak landscapes, we’re just whistling in the dark, waiting for the lighter evenings to come. The only real pleasure of winter is the end of it.

But I must confess that there is something to be said for the modest luxury of reading in bed on a cold, dark night, under a heap of blankets and cats, knowing that you can read on until your eyelids droop or the book no longer holds your attention. It’s not a good idea to watch television in bed. All that screaming and canned applause will keep your partner awake, and there’s the danger that you may actually dream about the programs. But a good book carries you into sleep quietly, leaving something interesting for the subconscious mind to work on for the next few hours.

But it is harder and harder to find a good nighttime read. I haunt the library and the bookstores, follow the reviews, ask my friends. Yet the heap of half-read and unread books beside the bed grows larger and larger, and threatens to engulf the whole bedroom.

From time top time I am encouraged or instructed to pick up all the books that I have piled beside the bed. This has something to do with a profoundly un-literary ritual called vacuuming, of which I disapprove on of principle. But it is interesting to see what books are there, some read, some half-read and abandoned, some glanced at and tossed down.

For example, I enjoy a good historical novel. My favorite author is Patrick O’Brian, in case you’re interested. But I’m struggling with a book by the Booker Prize winning writer A.S.Byatt, called The Biographer’s Tale. It is about a young man who abandons literary theory (a nice little in-joke) in order to write a biography of a biographer. It’s an ingenious idea, and the writing is as clever and as graceful as one could wish. But the reader needs a notebook, a PhD and a photographic memory to keep track of the plot. Who needs this kind of intellectual workout at bedtime?

I prefer fiction at bedtime, a good story. But good stories have become almost as rare as honest memoirs. The death of the novel has been routinely announced for the past fifty years, and I’m beginning to believe that it may be dying at last. The mysteries all seem like pale imitations of P.D.James, modern detective stories are all detective and no story, spy novels are redundant, science fiction is always behind the times, and romance is not to my taste, as well as being even less probable than science fiction. This leaves the ordinary novel, the “non-genre” novel, which has been the central and most prestigious form of fiction for the past two hundred years.

But the ordinary novel is being displaced by what is called the “literary novel” – a tautology if ever I heard one. The literary novel is written by a professor of literature, or a
graduate of a creative writing program, and it is designed to be read only by others of the same tribe.

These authors are no doubt very talented – it’s hard to get a novel published these days – but they all seem seriously depressed, and they want their readers to know it, and share it. Their books are promoted with lines like: “A dark fairy tale of mothers and daughters locked in a struggle” and “Fictional memoir of a descent into madness.” Is this the kind of thing I want in my head just before I go to sleep?

A lot of modern novelists have also abandoned the old-fashioned virtue of clarity in their writing. The new rule seems to be: the more pompous, wordy, obscure and loaded with symbolism the better. I like my fiction to be entertaining in an intelligent way. There’s plenty of intelligence on display, but entertainment seems to have gone out the window.

I suspect that only The New York Times reviewers actually read books by writers like Don DeLillo, Margaret Attwood, Cormac McCarthy, Houlebecq and even the semi-sacred Salman Rushdie, and perhaps not even they get to the last page without skipping.

The authors would probably argue that their very serious novels are not intended to be read in bed, but can only be appreciated in a deep leather chair, under a green shaded reading lamp, in a quiet study or library, with plenty time and a heap of reference books close at hand, along with a bottle of Prozac.

So, by necessity, my bedtime reading is moving inexorably away from my beloved fiction, into the less imaginative realm of non- fiction: biography, criticism, essays, and history. At least, as long as it’s true to life, there’s always something to laugh

The Wisdom of the Past

Books on your shelves are a kind of physical biography. It’s hard to deny that they reveal all your past enthusiasms, beliefs and projects. This is why so many people throw them out, preferring to forget all that embarrassing history. Now we are in the internet age, of course, no throwing out will be necessary. Books are obsolete, and the past vanishes at the touch of a button.

My books stay with me, because I am a media dinosaur, but sometimes I need to tidy up and reorganize the overcrowded shelves. The person I meet there is familiar, and not at all alien. But he has been left behind by history, philosophy, sociology, and just about every ology and osophy you can think of. The world has moved on.

If I believed in progress I would assume that all my old books are junk. But I’m not so sure. Most of the books that influenced me date from the 1960s and 1970s, when there was an astonishing ferment of social and political ideas. Those decades were a kind of mini-Enlightenment, and they were destined to be quickly extinguished by toxic tides of conservatism and irrationalism.
I collected books by just about every trendy author from Karl Popper to Herbert Marcuse, Christopher Lasch and Eric Hoffer – from all sides of the political spectrum. Am I imagining this, or was there something especially fertile and important in those books and those movements?

In the Renaissance there was a craze for the wisdom of the classical world. Wisdom from the past seemed more substantial, somehow. Its authors have the prestige of being long dead, their ideas hallowed by time. The eighteenth century Enlightenment followed the same path, although the thinkers of that era were more oriented towards the future.

Have I fallen into my own version of this trap – admiring what I imagine to be the “Wisdom of the ancients”? It can be argued that the “ancients” knew absolutely nothing, lacking TV and internet and cell phones and nuclear weapons and all the things that make our own age seem so wise. But those old, rather dusty books are still on my shelves, still worth reading occasionally, and I will keep them – just in case the ancients were right.

Innumerate

Like most writers I am proud of being (as I imagine) highly literate. I value my knowledge of books and authors, vocabulary and grammar, metaphors and figures of speech. Those things are my working tools. On the rare occasion these days when I teach a writing workshop, I feel guiltily smug about my superior command of the English language.

This smugness is destroyed at least once a year, on the week leading up to April 15. I’m quite incapable of understanding the Byzantine tax code myself so I employ an accountant to do it. When I watch the accountant at work I see the dark and embarrassing side of my literacy, which is my almost total innumeracy.

It’s tempting to claim a disability. This is the usual way of covering up stupidity these days. At school I suffered from severe myopia, which nobody recognized for years. The stuff that teachers wrote on the blackboard was a mystery to me because I couldn’t see it. This was a major disadvantage in math classes, which were taught by an irascible man called Mr. Harris. In Latin class I could sometimes get away with guessing the translations. In math class, I could never guess the right answers.

So I left school with enough math to add, subtract, divide, and multiply – but not much else. Advanced math was something I never learned, let alone algebra or calculus. In the modern world this is a deep embarrassment, like not understanding how to use a computer or drive a car. In the accountant’s office those numbers jumping around on the screen are incomprehensible and boring. Any accountant or financial adviser can run rings around me.

This is not just a money problem. Money is the least of it. We live in a mathematical universe, as Newton demonstrated, not a literary one. There’s no reason to be proud of not understanding Hawking’s Brief History of Time, or the tax code. When the universe is finally explained to us it will be by numbers, not by clever metaphors.

It’s natural to value to skills we have, and to denigrate the skills we lack. But are we innumerate writers giving soul to the soulless world of measurement and mathematics, or are we painting without colors?

Good News

Nobody can deny that we need some good news. Whether we will get any is another matter. My mother didn’t believe in good news. She heard nothing but bad news from the time she was born in 1909. Oddly enough there was chaos and war in the Middle East just after she was born, and the place has continued in much the same state to this very day. Then there was the First World War, the Great Depression, the Second World War, and then the Cold War when for more than forty years we were all expecting to be bombed into dust by those wicked communists. Oddly enough, they never got around to it. My guess is that the Soviets never had WMDs in the first place, just big painted models that they paraded through Red Square on May Day.

The odd dull moments were livened up with Korea, Vietnam, Granada, and famines and civil wars all over the place. More recently we’ve had the 9/11 terrorist attack, the war in Afghanistan, Iraq wars I and II, and Mr. Trump. When human ingenuity fails, nature can always be relied upon to deliver, a tsunami or a hurricane.

When did you last hear some good news? It’s a silly question. News doesn’t work lie that.
My time as a newspaper journalist is long past, but I do remember that only bad news sells. We dreaded a slow bad news day. As the most junior person on the reporting staff I was responsible for covering any small gaps that appeared in the news pages, due to the fact that nothing bad had happened. So I routinely wrote little items of imaginary news to fill the spaces. Usually these were traffic accidents or vague disturbances in which no one was arrested. I learned very quickly what was wanted, and it wasn’t a heartwarming story of a little girl finding her lost bunny. It had to be something exciting, alarming, or depressing. Just watch the Fox TV channel. You don’t have to have a PhD in media studies to figure out their game: bad news, fear, mysteries, and ideally all three at once. It’s simple-minded, but it works.

Most of us prefer bad news. Study your family when the TV news is on. Watch when their eyes are fixed on the screen, and when they drift away. Over the decades dozens of people have launched “Good News” newspapers and TV shows, but they all sank without a trace, and quickly. Someone once gave me a link to a web page called Happy News.com. It had stories of survivors, pets rescued, sports victories, health breakthroughs, and so on. It was all good stuff, but even HappyNews.com had an unhappy news button, in case you couldn’t stand it anymore.

Good news just doesn’t grab us. Consider these imaginary headlines: “President Embraces Health Care for All;” “Afghanistan Endorse Democratic Constitution: All Rebel Groups Disarm”; “Massive Federal Effort to Abolish Income Inequality.” If The New York Times had to survive on headlines like that it would be dead in a week.

Here’s an interesting paradox. In the mass media good news is almost always personal (the rescue, the recovery, the survival). Bad news is almost always social (refugees, economic problems, war). If research showed this to be true, it would be a triumphant vindication of American individualism. No matter how bad things get out there, each of us personally is doing just fine. I’ll leave you to spot the logical flaw in this argument, if there is one. The bottom line is that in order to have a small amount of good news worth reporting, you first have to have a very large amount of bad news. Every cloud has a silver lining.