Saturday 30 June 2012

Living, Thinking, Looking

"The first time I saw Zurbarán's Lemons, Oranges, and a Rose... I had a very strong reaction to the picture... I cannot track the initial unconscious milliseconds of my response to the picture, but I knew its image hit me instantly and bodily, and had some person been there to measure the activation of my sympathetic nervous system that had sped up my heart rate and increased the sweat levels in my skin, he would have pronounced me in a state of heightened emotion and attention.

Why? How can four lemons in a silver saucer, oranges in a basket, a rose, and a teacup filled with water sitting on another silver saucer create such a physical change?... They appear to be in hyperfocus, to be more defined, more perfectly clear than things in the world... the objects are illuminated by a light that represents no time of day or light source we could ever name... They are fictions in a fictitious world, an imaginary elsewhere that has opened up before our eyes... They are enchanted by the artist's intentionality - a force that is prereflective and reflective, one that I engage with as a distinct presence of another human being, albeit the ghost of that other, that absent you.

The longer I looked at it, the stranger and more mysterious the image became... After that initial startle response, my nervous system quieted down and the stillness and silence of the things represented... and of the medium itself... acted on me like a balm, and I fell into a kind of reverie typical of art viewers, an active, ongoing, shifting, physical, mental response to what I was seeing, one that included emotion... It is a feeling that I often had as a child and still have from time to time, and on occasion it is accompanied by a strong lifting sensation inside me, as if I am rising up and out of myself. This Zurbarán brings me back to that emotional state, and so a part of my response to the picture is an active projection or, to use the psychoanalytic term, a form of transference of my memories and of my lived past onto the painting."

This is from Siri Hustvedt ’s new book, Living, Thinking, Looking - collected articles and essays 2006-2011. Another brilliant, much loved woman writer of my own generation, but Siri Hustvedt is not much like any of the three writers I recently quoted here. My love for her work is wider, less specific than my gratitude to them. I’ve read her two long mature novels, What I Loved and Sorrows of an American, three or four times each and know I’ll go back to them again and again. Her Mysteries of the Rectangle, essays on paintings, is my favourite writing by anyone about art. And her writing on migraine, psychology and psychoanalysis and a raft of other gripping issues impresses, enchants and moves me no less. The new book is wonderful: the force and nuance and quirkiness of her ideas, her sentences, her metaphors – this is a mind that rarely fails to take mine on a rewarding journey.

Tuesday 26 June 2012

Bring across

As a leaving present back in March I received a generous token for a bookshop chain with which I bought the kind of things I can't often afford: a newly published hardback, a couple of expensively imported Spanish paperbacks and an unabridged French CD audio-book of Ni d'Eve ni d'Adam (translated as Tokyo Fiancee), a short novel by Amélie Nothomb, read by the French actor and director Sylvie Testud, who played the Nothomb character in the film of Stupeur et Tremblements (Fear and Trembling) - the two books evoke the same period of Amélie Nothomb's life as a very young Belgian woman working in Tokyo.

Shock! Concentrate as I might, I had a hard time following these quick, clipped tones, listened to the whole 3.5 hours and wasn't doing much better. It's ages since I spent much time in a French-speaking country and the 'ear' for a less than open rhythm and intonation that you haven't heard recently can slip away: I know this happens, though I don't know why, and I know it does come back. So I tried again, put the CD on quite late last night, listened attentively for an hour or so and fell asleep with it playing, put it back on when I woke up and... womp! there the words were, back in focus, dropping crystal clear from every sentence.

Magic. Here, I think, we're at the heart of language, which goes deeper than words - what I most love and least understand. What my brain just did is remember how to translate this clipped Parisian French into meaning - translation, the 'bringing across' of meaning, as it takes place between two languages, but also in the processing of a single language. And not just verbal language: are these the mysterious bits of my particular brain that work pretty well for words, but not, alas, at all well for figures, or algebra, or html...?

And does a similar dynamic extend to visual language? Is this why I always feel these photos - my favourite photos I've ever taken, ever! - have something to do with translation: the visual image dissolving in the pavement and re-forming in reflections, brought across, different, but with some of the same meaning?

Amélie Nothomb's novel, now I can 'hear' it more clearly, with its tale of a Belgian-Japanese romance, is much about the things that can and can't be translated between languages and cultures - a tense mixture of fascination and despair.

Submitted for Edition 16 of the >Language >Place Blog Carnival, with the special theme of Translation.

Sunday 24 June 2012


Aqua or turquoise is a favourite colour. It always makes me think of the ocean lapping the beaches of Rio de Janeiro, the blue-green light of a natural beauty that infiltrates the soul, surpassing all the sadness, confusion and fear in a big city or a small heart.

In the local supermarket yesterday I saw a small, pretty woman with a white-blond ponytail and just for a moment I thought it was a long-ago colleague. Then, remembering the years that have passed since I saw P, the twenty years since we travelled together to Rio for the 1992 Earth Summit, I realised this woman was too young, the  resemblance a phantom outgrowth of my own mind.

I’d been hearing reports this week from RIO+20 - sad and angry reports like
this one, mostly, since no one, these days, believes that such events and their bland statements will make a difference – and thinking, oh my, is it really twenty years? Did we believe these statements then? I think we still wanted and tried to. It’s all so mixed up with memories and thoughts about the passage of time and erosion of will in my own life. So very lucky to have travelled from the middle of England to Copacabana. Such great hopes and opportunities, for some of us, so quickly dashed. And yet that blue, once seen, will always colour the imagination.

Thursday 21 June 2012

Again and again

"Thousands of people have marked the summer solstice despite the celebration being one of the wettest in years."
The Independent, 21 June 2012 

"again and again we sing the sun back up"
Summer solstice poem by Roselle Angwin

Tuesday 19 June 2012

Drawings of Dulwich Wood

Much as I love to wander in the interwebs, encountering what I'd never otherwise encounter, nothing means more than finding there an evocation of my own close, physical locality, like Canadian artist Liz Charsley-Jory 's drawings of Dulwich Wood, which are full of the lines and textures, shapes and stories I see and try to photograph when walking there. This drawing, for example: yes, this was the pattern the trees were making on the sky when I took the photos above and here. How lovely to find online, so beautifully executed, a picture that my eyes remember so intimately. I went to see some of her drawings on show in a local cafe and found them, in deep, glossy sepia ink, even more evocative. (scroll down her website a little to see the whole series of drawings and click on each for a larger view)

Monday 11 June 2012

Saturday 9 June 2012

Light (4 of 4)

So I thank these brilliant, difficult, challenging women, Mary Karr, Jeanette Winterson and Lauren Berlant, for not trying to please, for going to the hardest places and putting their talents and intellects at the service of sharing hard experiential truths that all too few have the gall to share. These are not comforting words. But the knowledge that they've been here too: that comforts me enormously; that surely is one of the things writing is for.

Friday 8 June 2012

Cruel Optimism (3 of 4)

" This is not a time for assurance but for experiment—to have patience with failure, with trying things out, to try new forms of life that also might not work—which doesn’t make them worse than what’s there now. It is a time for using the impasse that we’re in to learn something about how to imagine better economies of intimacy and labor. "

Lauren Berlant (via wood s lot)

Thursday 7 June 2012

Things get worse (2 of 4)

" I have noticed that doing the sensible thing is only a good idea when the decision is quite small. For the life-changing things, you must risk it.

And here is the shock - when you risk it, when you do the right thing, when you arrive at the borders of common sense and cross into unknown territory, leaving behind you all the familiar smells and lights, then you do not experience great joy and huge energy.

You are unhappy. Things get worse.

It is a time of mourning. Loss. Fear. We bullet ourselves through with questions. And then we feel shot and wounded. "

Jeanette Winterson

Tuesday 5 June 2012

Not whistling (1 of 4)

" If you live in the dark a long time and the sun comes out, you do not cross into it whistling. There's an initial uprush of relief at first, then... a profound dislocation. My old assumptions... are buried, yet my new ones aren't yet operational. There's been a death of sorts, but without a few days in hell no resurrection is possible. "

Mary Karr

Sunday 3 June 2012