Last year I went through a long period where I couldn’t read. This was nothing new; boredom, laziness, indifference, computer games, have all led to this pass before.
This time it was because reading caused me pain. I was going through a period of emotional trauma – love, grief, the usual – and this meant it was too painful to read anything worthwhile.
Reading anything worthwhile – and I do not at all necessarily mean literature – involves attention. exploration of oneself and with oneself: your thought and your emotions, your body and spirit. If these are not available, or if these cause you pain, then you cannot read with attention. At a basic level I would cite the effect of an acute physical pain on your ability to pay attention to other things.
What actually happens? You attempt to read and then halfway through a sentence, or a paragraph, or an observation, you are brought up short, as if something had tweaked a nerve, and you think you about your own situation, rather than extending yourself to the words you are reading.
There is a fog of attentiveness.
Reading anything too abstracted from those important feelings, pressing in, pushed away, seemed not to have any meaning or point. I simply couldn’t concentrate on them. Braudel on markets, Flann O’Brien’s newspaper pieces, Arthur C Danto on aesthetic transfiguration. Irrelevant, funny but I don’t want funny, irrelevant.
I don’t want to be distracted from myself.
Then I was able to read again. What happened? Did I get over my pain? No. But language and words re-formed, found a way round the problem. As they do.
But I had help.
Text 1: “Imaginary Letters” by Mary Butts
I was lucky enough to be in a pub with Tim Hopkins, the craft, brains and heft behind of The Half Pint Press. He’d brought his latest remarkable creation, “Imaginary Letters” by Mary Butts, and was kind enough to allow us to unpack the vivid object into its component parts.
Yes the first paragraph caught my eye: A cycle of miseries now known by the heart.
But it was the physical words, the tangible imprint of pressure and ink, on the page that caught my attention. Reading those words on that page, made me want to read again. The words themselves seemed to be additionally vivid because of the craft of the page, the care and artistry of the imprint. Words once again seemed to have a value beyond their reference to my pain. (The only value, my Self would belligerently declare, bruising my heart and smashing my chest around, a bundle of tantrum-ing id in its cuttable, bleedable, scarring, bruisable cage.)
I think as I say that it was that the value of the object itself, the care taken over it, which renewed the sense of the word; the words as imprinted objects seemed to have more value because of the context of the artefact.
Those words on that page had partially gained an aura, not of the work’s unique originating existence or authorial motive, but derived from the care and effort put into the new object onto which they had been imprinted. This process had done something to revive in the word* the ‘quality of its presence’, which famously, ‘is always depreciated’ by mechanical reproduction, according to Benjamin. Perhaps there was after all something of ritual about it all, something sacred which suggested meaning outside me. (The unreading me: so narrow, so self-centred, so dull).
(*I had originally said logos here, which I think is wrong, certainly in a neoplatonic sense, which in a relatively uninformed way is my meaning – logos cannot be revived as such, it can only be re-attached, by using word i hope to find a middle ground between logos, the authorial word, the crafted imprint of word on the page, and the word within me. And maybe after all there is a Jungian sense, an attempt to connect logos and eros via the medium of print.)
(Actually logos, inscription, writing, print are not best approached by Benjamin’s essay – there is of course an entirely separate and vast literature of religion and critical theory to deal with the Word and its authority – but it done now, as my brother would say.)
The beauty and care of the object in which the words were contained – tissue paper, envelopes, fine letter paper, the hidden object of the press – helped hoist me back up into a desire to read the printed word, no matter the object in which they were contained. At the time it felt, quite simply, that the words burned more vividly and had more meaning than I had felt the printed word had had for a while. (Again, those words – burning, meaning – words of ritual and the sacral).
This in itself perhaps shows how far I had regressed. An ability to understand, perhaps more importantly to feel the value of the word abstracted from its context seems to me to be a valuable capability developed by the age of print, and more vital and necessary in the age of digital media. Perhaps it was a problem of technology, perhaps I was suffering from some sort of tribal historical regression. And perhaps in some respects it had analogy with the ability to be able to read without forming the words with your mouth, described by Augustine of Bishop Ambrose here:
“When he read,” said Augustine, “his eyes scanned the page and his heart sought out the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still. Anyone could approach him freely and guests were not commonly announced, so that often, when we came to visit him, we found him reading like this in silence, for he never read aloud.”Alberto Manguel, Chapter 2 of A History of Reading(New York; Viking, 1996).
‘His heart sought out the meaning’. A technological advance. That was the very thing my heart was not able to do, because it didn’t want to. I didn’t want it to.
I went rambling off an unresolved direction here, which I’ve put at the bottom of the post*
I came out wanting not just to read again, but seeing the word in its environment, the word as environment again. It was someone had started shovelling coals again onto the relevant part of my brain, firing up in recognition, having previously been sunk in inattention.
I felt doubly grateful to Tim, because in fact as well as the fire, he was also responsible on that same evening for the focus, by recommending Eley Williams in general, and specifically the collection of short stories Attrib.
Text 2: Attrib. by Eley Williams
Words can be very direct. And direct contact with my heart and feelings was fatal to the words. Indifference to my heart and feelings had been fatal to the words.
My first thought when I started the short stories collected in Attrib. was ‘oh, this person is having fun.’ In this respect it reminded me of the sheer stimulating enjoyment of reading Helen deWitt’s collection Some Trick.
The second thing that I noticed, with a sort of growing excitement and relish, was how Williams showed the pressure of emotion on the form of language. There was an indirectness that allowed me to approach the stories. A poet’s sense of something, to use Isaac Rosenberg’s fine words, understandable and yet ungraspable.
The first story The Alphabet is a story about loss – loss of language, loss of memory, loss of awareness, loss of love. It’s also a story that very efficiently and effectively builds up the distilled structure of those things in order to express their loss, in this case largely through the letters of the alphabet, those letters of love: ‘the taut bow of D … an empty workman’s clamp: G‘ and the description of R as ‘a thrown magnifying glass embedded in a wall’ is one of those gifts that will stay with me throughout my life. (Writerly gifts are the best gifts.)
It’s a story that asks the question, what does it actually mean to lose one’s mind? Because it also means the loss of love. Feeling the loss happening as it’s happening. Anticipating the loss and knowing that it’s going to happen.
This is a story of a relationship break-up that happens because of aphasia. It happens in language.
My brain unpinned you without me wanting it to and now you have gone.
It is not necessarily clear if the partner has actually physically gone because what he relished – the shared communication – is gone, whether he is still there but the memory of his face and of what he has meant is lost to the narrator because of their loss of language. Their faces and love fade with the loss of language itself, as if the tale itself evaporates in loss:
I want to be able to tell you that I miss you, and the way you had with me, and the way you had with all the words that – at the time – I had for you.
If I say there is something indirect about the stories, I do not mean that the words are not direct, they are, direct enough to break the heart in the first one, but that the shape of emotions is realised through the shape of language. It allowed me to approach it, where more conventional expressions would have stopped me reading: do not try to speak to me of this, you do not know me, this is not mine, this is not me.
A wonderful example is the second story, Swatch, where two young boys playing hide and seek, hide in a wardrobe together and see how many marshmallows they can stuff in their mouths. It is also a description of pre-sexual-awareness sexual arousal, as full of sugar and close intimacy they gaze into each others’ eyes, and find themselves in ‘tangled, bored tussles for space’.
It is in the eyes that this sexual and emotional pressure of desire is realised, because one of the boys’ fathers runs a paint shop that has produced a deep awareness of the exotic landscape of colours and their names, Peter’s own eyes are variably, strangely coloured, so with the industrial language of colour palettes, they form an entire cosmos of a world reconfigured:
He saw Cocoa Latte in his eyes some days, Truffle Leather 3 during others. There was even a greenish contour of Enchanted Eden 2 to be found if he examined his eye in strong morning light … If Peter stared himself down in bright summer sun he could see a notch of Tangiers Flame in one of his eyes and the shadow of a shadow of Amethyst Falls right beside it.
Williams strongly conveys the material presence of language and communication, and through that material presence, its plasticity (in the sense of the plastic arts – which are a theme); it’s one of the chief pleasures of the volume. (I just saw a line from the first story: ‘Aphasia is now an autocomplete on my laptop’s search field.’) H0w language communication can take place outside the traditional vehicles or contexts for that communication. For example, in Mischief, the intimate communication between a mine-sniffing rat, and the sapper disposing of the mine.
To put this back in the context of Imaginary Letters, here Colours are the book, Letters are the book, sounds are the book which contain the imprint.
Physical things are the book. It was during reading the story Rosette Manufacture: A Catalogue & Spotters’ Guide that the third observation occurred to me (oh and did I say how much I enjoyed the subtitles of the first story, The Alphabet (or Love Letters or Writing Love Letters, Before I Forget How To Use Them or These Miserable Loops Look So Much Better on Paper Than In Practice) – ‘better on paper than in practice’, what a phrase to turn over and consider when applied to writing – it sort of gets at the heart of the business Williams seems to be about).
So, yes, that third observation. After the fun and the indirectness (that still isn’t the right word is it). The rosette story is something of a natural history of manufactured rosettes – the political candidate kind, the dog show kind – out of which an entire system of manufactory and ecology is inferred and condensed (Williams is very good at these condensed systems).
It seems almost written to bring about the extraordinary, dream-like, final paragraph:
We will never resign or leave you. We will go on making our false flowers for non-lovers with the jaguars and monsters for you, in our false garden, in the shade.
But it was a specific phrase that caught my eye:
Sometimes – and not even in very high winds – the plastic false-silk ribbons that depend from a rosette overlap one another and it looks as if a cross or a wavelength or a gene or many other lapel-less things have appeared above your heart.
‘Lapel-less’. This reminded me of two things, the second of which I’ve only just worked out, which is Leigh Hunt’s poem The Fish, the Man and the Spirit, especially in the fish’s description of the man:
Thou that on dry land horribly dost go With a split body and most ridiculous pace Prong after prong, disgracer of all grace, Long-useless-finn'd, haired, upright, unwet, slow!
But at the time the implied ontology reminded me of Wittgenstein’s essential communication system represented by the Slab!, and his depiction of language in Philosophical Investigations:
23. But how many kinds of sentence are there? Say assertion, question and command? – There are countless kinds; countless different kinds of use of all the things we call “signs”, “words”, “sentences”. And this diversity is not something fixed, given once and for all; but new types of language, new language-games, as we may say, come into existence, and others become obsolete and get forgotten …
The word “language-game” is used here to emphasise the fact that the speaking of language is part of an activity, or of a form of life.Philosophical Investigations – Ludwig Wittgenstein, Wiley-Blackwell
Language-game. Sprachspiel. Slab! or Platte! Each of Williams’ stories a constrained system of language and communication, of play and yes, to return to my first observation, of fun.
(Going back through the stories, I saw in Swatch, that the first line is ‘Peter noticed the unspeakable colour during Stuart’s twelfth birthday party’ and later in the same story the school song is remembered, ‘The halting tongue that dare not tell the whole‘, both reminding me of that earlier famous piece of Wittgenstein from the Tractatus, ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.’ Nevertheless, one must add in relation to Williams’ stories, it will find a way to express itself even if the central object remains evasive because it doesn’t exist in the system (the pre-sexual awareness sexuality in Swatch).)
And to return to my second observation – that indirectness – those language systems were not attempting to communicate with me, but were internally coherent worlds expressing emotions and feelings for which I had analogy, but not the same language.
I do not in any way wish to say that Wittgenstein is the ‘solution’ to these wonderfully rich and enjoyable stories, only that this observation helped me explore further into them.
Something about all this reminded me of something once said to me in psychoanalysis. Childhood is the place we learn to survive, to succeed, which is learned within a space of parental, familial (or institutional) rules. When we grow up we can to a certain extent create the environmental rules which will define survival and success – the internal rules by which we find satisfaction no longer need to be the parental rules – but very often these are buried deeply, and we seek to replicate the same moral or emotionally regulatory environments in which to psychologically survive.
Language seems to exist like flora and fauna in the spaces Williams creates.
That was what allowed me to approach this wonderful volume of stories … no, that was what allowed me to let this wonderful volume of stories in.
Text 3: Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge – Empathy, Conjunctions, 1984
Some time at the back of summer last year, I was in the excellent second-hand bookshop The Second Shelf, browsing through the old literary journals, and found a poem in Conjunctions by Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge, called Entropy. Having scanned more or less carelessly through the other pages, words in Bersenbrugge’s poem caught my attention and I read it through more carefully.
It seemed to speak directly to my heart, albeit in an elliptical way. Elliptically direct.
I made a note in my notebook to return and buy it – for some reason that wasn’t possible at the time.
And I kept on reminding myself and kept on not going, to go back and buy the periodical in question, but only got round to it a few weeks ago, just before the Covid lockdown.
It had been sold, inevitably. The context of the words is now memory. But although the importance or shape of the words burns brightly, I can’t remember any of them specifically. I just know the text had seemed important to me at that point.
I’ve just realised in the course of writing this that I can look it up and find it. At the time I wasn’t sure of the notebook in which I’d put the details, which was some sort of excuse.
I’ve found it now, and yet I’m strangely reluctant to go searching.
The space in which the language is operating is defined, the language itself is undefined. It is all absence. All evasion. Burning meaning, no expression.
Reading, it seems, even when you’ve started again, has its limits.
*[A desire to return to the word with all one’s being again, regardless of context is not just a matter of being able to consume the word in a mass-produced paperback, nor is it being able to feel the heft and value of the thing you are reading on the internet where packaging and the ‘value’ of packaging needs interpreting differently (how do we value writing on substack, on github’s blogging capability, how do we compare this to the FT’s UI, or the i‘s ‘unreadable’ UI). With regard to twitter the word ‘attentiveness’ seems important again – twitter, for me, seems to yoke itself and foster a wider inattentiveness, other than to itself (that is not to say that I am not led, on a daily basis, to more excellent reading via twitter than most other platforms).]
Oddly, and to stick to the sacred, it allowed a resurgent gnosticism – that is to say an attention to the word where the external casing, shell or context is at its filthiest, ugliest (there are things to do with the glitch aesthetic on the internet here, which I want to explore separately).