To Live or to Recount: Quirks and Perks

arms spread wide, sky

Photo by Joshua Earle

Quote:  This is what I have been thinking: for the most commonplace event to become an adventure, you must — and this is all that is necessary — start recounting it. This is what fools people: a man is always a teller of tales, he lives surrounded by his stories and the stories of others, he sees everything that happens to him through them; and he tries to live his life as if he were recounting it.

But you have to choose: to live or to recount.

— Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea (translator: Robert Baldick)

A lesser mind might have put that last statement as: you cannot be both present in the moment and looking back at the past. Or: you cannot be both within, experiencing life, and without, observing it. But Sartre framed his words in terms of storytelling. On the other hand, the first sentence of the Quote is a recipe for any author (supposedly) bereft of ideas or inspiration: you are a story, your life is a story, all you have to do is recount it.

Skip now from Sartre, the existentialist, to Camus, the absurdist, speaking in his novel The Stranger (which I discussed in The Sunny Absurd).

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T. S. Eliot and the Extended Chiasmus

Today’s Quote is a short poem by T. S. Eliot. It is the closest I have come to finding an embodiment of internal mirroring, or of the so called chiasmus.

A chiasmus, pronounced /kʌɪˈazməs/, from the Greek word meaning crossing or diagonal arrangement, is a figure of speech that repeats two ideas or grammatical structures in inverted order.

At its simplest and silliest it adds no meaning:

He dreams of success, and of success he dreams.

(Although, there are examples where this special case of chiasmus, also sometimes called antimetabole, is made to work to splendid effect; an oft-cited example is John F. Kennedy’s United Nations Speech in 1961, when he said: Mankind must put an end to war—or war will put an end to mankind. It’s clever, and it’s not something you come up with on the spot.)

Beyond the simplest inversion, chiasmus can use parallel word pairs to add meaning:

Loving is a celebration of life, just as living is a celebration of love.

Or it can pun on different meanings of a word:

The novel must be written, but also the writing must be novel.

At its most advanced, an extended chiasmus can invert ideas and images on a larger scale. Here is the poem; see if you can spot a chiasmus or two.

Eyes That Last I Saw in Tears by T. S. Eliot

Eyes that last I saw in tears
Through division
Here in death’s dream kingdom
The golden vision reappears
I see the eyes but not the tears
This is my affliction

This is my affliction
Eyes I shall not see again
Eyes of decision
Eyes I shall not see unless
At the door of death’s other kingdom
Where, as in this,
The eyes outlast a little while
A little while outlast the tears
And hold us in derision.

What makes the Quote quiver?

Clever, imperfect symmetry that allows for a sense of progression from one side to the other.

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The Sunny Absurd

 

Albert Camus’ Stranger (1942) has one protagonist, the first person narrator called Meursault, and one antagonist: the sun. The book is originally in French; I quote from a translation by Stuart Gilbert. I have italicised all the words related to the sun.

Quote: There was the same red glare as far as the eye could reach, and small waves were lapping the hot sand in little, flurried gasps. As I slowly walked toward the boulders at the end of the beach I could feel my temples swelling under the impact of the light. It pressed itself on me, trying to check my progress. And each time I felt a hot blast strike my forehead, I gritted my teeth, I clenched my fists in my trouser pockets and keyed up every nerve to fend off the sun and the dark befuddlement it was pouring into me. Whenever a blade of vivid light shot upward from a bit of shell or broken glass lying on the sand, my jaws set hard. I wasn’t going to be beaten, and I walked steadily on.

Any book blurb gives away that this is a story of how Meursault got drawn into a murder on an Algerian beach. There’s also mention of the story being Camus’ exploration of the nakedness of man faced with the absurd. The Quote describes Meursault walking along the fateful beach, and his physical fight with the absurdity of his situation.

The Quote is not a spoiler. The book is short, around 100 pages, and within the first quarter the following words play prominent roles in conveying the oppressive mood of absurdity: sun, light, heat, lamps. The remaining three quarters intensify the heat — summer and the plot set in.

Oh, and the opening words are: Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure. That surely adds to the heavy mood, and yet, the only image that had stayed with me since I last read this book, half a life ago, was the dazzle of yellow and white that can wreck havoc on the mind.

 

What makes the Quote quiver?

Sun-glare.

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Writing: Quirks and Perks

It is now necessary to warn you that your concern for the reader must be pure: you must sympathize with the reader’s plight (most readers are in trouble about half the time) but never seek to know the reader’s wants. Your whole duty as a writer is to please and satisfy yourself, and the true writer always plays to an audience of one. Start sniffing the air, or glancing at the Trend Machine, and you are as good as dead, although you may make a nice living.
— E. B. White, Approach to Style in Strunk & White

 

bird

Fly free

 

In other words, stop trying to imitate J. K. Rowling or Stephen King; their duty is to themselves, your duty is to yourself.

A bit of motivation for all those (in the complement of Rowling and King) who are planning to write this weekend.


Reading recommendations

  1. The Elements of Style, by William I. Strunk and E. B. White. 
  2.  Essays of E. B. White, by E. B. White.
  3. My other two blog posts on White’s work: Avian Black Humour and Rosebuds Bow Courteously.

The Daffodil and the Preserved Prunes

Quote: His girded spirit sees agrarian unrest in the daffodil and industrial riot in a tin of preserved prunes.

That’s Christopher Morley writing in his essay, Thoughts on Cider, taken from his collection of humorous essays, Pipefuls (1920). In the Quote, Morley is referring to a poet called Dove Dulcet. A bit of internet snooping suggests that Dulcet may have been Morley’s pseudonym, or that Dulcet may have been a literary agent. (Let me know in the comments if you know the answer.)

The Quote tickled my fancy in more ways than one. There’s the minor mystery of who Dove is; there’s the minor question of what exactly is meant by a girded spirit; there’s the poor daffodil with unrest in its soul, and the poor tin of prunes brewing riot within its walls.

I sought to explain the girded spirit by referring to the context of the Quote.

Dove is one who has faced many and grievous woes. His Celtic soul peers from behind cloudy curtains of alarm. Old unhappy far-off things and battles long ago fume in the smoke of his pipe. His girded spirit sees agrarian unrest in the daffodil and industrial riot in a tin of preserved prunes. He sees the world moving on the brink of horror and despair. Sweet dalliance with a baked bloater on a restaurant platter moves him to grief over the hard lot of the Newfoundland fishing fleet.

I was left with a sense of: spirit girded by sorrow and discontent.

But the daffodil! Yes, I agree, girded spirit or not, who could accuse a daffodil of such subversion? (Tinned fruit has always been suspicious, I’ll give him that.)

What makes the Quote quiver?

Shock tactic.

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Seabluegreen Eyes

 

An outlier brooks no terse introduction. Nevertheless, give me five hundred words to try. Meet Keri Hulme’s novel, The Bone PeopleBooker Prize winner for 1985.

New Zealand, nineteen eighties, a cruel, vibrant, love story between three unrelated people: a woman, a child, and a man; a mystery infused with Maori myths, soaked with Maori language, suspended between poetry and prose, written unconventionally but with effusive, effortless erudition.

The emotional ride — having recently finished the book — I would describe as explosive disbelief, followed by heartwarming realisation that not all conventional wisdom is sound, not all differences are differences, and that there is hope for us human beings, whichever way we are wrought and then brought together. You, no doubt, would express yourself in other words: there is great latitude for interpretation.

The book is unique, in style and in substance.

The following quote illustrates a few unusual aspects of the writing. The typographic features, indentation and spacing, are deliberate. (The quote is given as an image, to ensure that all browsers preserve the typography.)

Quote from

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How to: Find a Book You’ll Enjoy

Which book should you read next?

You already have a reading list for the next few years, ah, excuse me, please skip this blog post.

You’re still here? Good, let me explain myself. WordPress bloggers regularly ask strangers on the internet for reading advice. And assuming bloggers aren’t an entirely exceptional race, it’s a dilemma pressing on a nontrivial percentage of human minds.

Unless you’re entirely inexperienced with books (in which case you should say so), or you’re asking advice on choosing between specific books, for a specific reason, where you can expect a reasonable, meaningful, non-random answer: why ask anyone at all? Sure, you could ask your childhood librarian friend who knows you better than you know yourself. But the librarian internet is not to be trusted to bounce back friendly answers every time. Better search for the answer yourself, trust me.

Indeed, here’s my proposed method to narrow down the book universe to your next literary companion.

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The Ideal Reader: Quirks and Perks

The ideal reader wishes both to get to the end of the book and to know that the book will never end.
Alberto Manguel, A Reader on Reading

In the chapter titled Notes Towards the Definition of an Ideal Reader, Manguel lists around seventy, sometimes contradictory (or paradoxical?), statements about the ideal reader. He’s onto something.

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Similes and Smiles

Photo by ryan baker

In The Quantum and the Lotus Matthieu Ricard speaks about meditation, and how the effect of meditation on the mind can be described.

Quote: For example, some authors say that thought is initially like a frothing waterfall, then like a stream with occasional eddies, then like a large river with the odd ripple running over it, and finally like the ocean, whose depths are never disturbed.

A simile is a figure of speech that compares two seemingly disparate objects. It describes by analogy. The word simile itself comes from the Latin word like, and used to also mean likeness, resemblance, similarity (in examples such as: there is no simile between the two). Imitation is a basic learning mechanism. Our acts, words, ideas are first seen, repeated, then modified by circumstance or will. We start by emulating our parents, our friends, our teachers; later on we emulate ourselves, learning and improving on what we have done. The mutual similarity and the gradual alternations of our actions allow for (a perceived?) continuity of personality.

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The Sense of Being Average

One more vegetable amongst other vegetables.

Quote: Average, that’s what I’d been, ever since I left school. … Average at life; average at truth; morally average.

This is Tony speaking, the protagonist of Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending, which won the Man Booker Prize for 2011. He, Tony, is brooding over a life lost to muddling about, to getting by, to letting go of aspirations and dreams.

The full quote gets the point across explicitly, familiar example included.

Average, that’s what I’d been, ever since I left school. Average at university and work; average in friendship, loyalty, love; average, no doubt, at sex. There was a survey of British motorists a few years ago which showed that ninety-five per cent of those polled through they were “better than average” drivers. But by law of averages, we’re most of us bound to be average. Not that this brought any comfort. The word resounded. Average at life; average at truth; morally average.

What makes the Quote quiver?

Word-hammering of average with the word-order change.

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