Speaking of Love

speaking of love 2013 ftrgb (hi-res jpeg, cover large)Fairy tales feature a lot in Angela Young’s striking and sensitive novel, Speaking of Love and as I was reading them, I wondered why it was that the particular ‘voice’ of the tale should be so powerful. And it seemed to me that the fairy tale combines violent disaster with miraculous recovery in a way that suggests this is nothing more than the common unfolding of fate. Dreadful things happen so that lessons may be learned, but that’s just life going about its business. No need to make a fuss about it.

The fairy tales belong to Iris Marchwood who has come to a castle in Wales for a festival of storytelling. Weaving stories out of thin air has long been her practice, and she has had more violent disaster than most to turn into metaphor. The traumatic death of her mother and her father’s emotional unavailability left her a vulnerable adult, and the little happiness she had with the wild red-headed poet Kit, with whom she has a daughter, Vivie, was short-lived and followed by psychotic episodes. Vivie, only ten at the time, was left to deal with her mother as best she could, and in consequence has been deeply scarred by the experience.

Now Vivie’s adult life is a mess. She can’t hold down a job, her marriage is crumbling and she is terrified of seeing her mother. Disturbing mantras rule her mind, notably, the knowledge that ‘you had to be on guard because you never knew when your own insides – or anyone else’s insides – might spill out.’ An insightful glimpse into the world of the child subject to emotional violence in their parents. The harder Vivie holds out against the confusing voices in her head, the closer to her own vortex of madness she stumbles. Will she turn into her mother after all?

The third hand in this narration belongs to Matthew who grew up next door to Vivie and who has loved her all his life without ever being able to tell her so. He is driving his elderly father from Thetford Forest, where he lives, to the storytelling event in Wales, and as they make the journey, father and son have their own pieces of the puzzle to add to the complex picture that is the mother and daughter’s relationship. In the four days of their cross-country odyssey, the past will come clear, the violence dissipate, and some miraculous recoveries seem suddenly possible.

This is a brave and beautiful book, fearlessly and compassionately charting the terrain of mental illness. Reading it made me realise how the responses of most people to emotional and mental disturbance in others grow out of the violence of fear – the fear of everything churned up, damaged and troubling that we all carry within. Those early responses to schizophrenic patients – lock them up, chain them down, wipe out their memories with ECT – are the physical counterparts of brutal feelings that demand the ugliness of ill health be kept out of sight of the normal people. For fear of what it might trigger in them, of course. ‘Because until you know you can hold your own centre of gravity in the face of another’s loss of it,’ Ruth, the gentle doctor says in the novel, ‘you may very well be overwhelmed… all over again.’

I think that’s why recovery still seems miraculous – it’s a miracle when people manage to find kindness, love and compassion, and yet these are the only tools that work against emotional darkness. The sadder a person is, the more troubled they are, the more love they need around them before they can face their own demons. In a world where some areas of health care are beginning to realise this, it’s a sorry state of affairs that for the most part we continue to meet almost all negative feelings – misery, self-pity, post-traumatic stress and madness – with contempt, ridicule, indifference and anger. Matthew’s father, Dick, calls Iris a ‘remarkable woman’, and he’s right to do so. Those who know mental health issues are forced to find extraordinary courage to deal with them.

There aren’t enough books about healing out there, and when they do come along, we have to be grateful if they’re as splendid as Speaking of Love. The use of fairy tales mixes here with a voice that is gentle and just and hopeful, taking us through any upsetting events in safety. There’s even a happy ending of the unfinished and open kind that those who don’t like happy endings might appreciate. This is a book that cares deeply for its characters, and it sees them through violent disaster and miraculous recovery with tender concern. It tells us that dreadful things happen, and all we need to combat them are time, love and stories. No need to make a fuss about it.

 

 

The Luminaries

You have to imagine a big chest in the corner of the attic, containing the inscription: Plot Fireworks: Handle With Care! And then you picture Eleanor Catton, that reckless smartie-pants, coming along with a fistful of lit matches, and dropping them inside.

The LuminariesWhat happens next is The Luminaries, the ‘Big Bang’ of plot, out of which a whole heaven and earth is created and shown to us in its entirely in a fierce 360 degree rotation of the sphere. The world in question is New Zealand in the 19th century gold rush, a place of prospectors and opium dens and shipping magnates and hastily built hotels and jails. A place just growing into its existence, and whose fledgling state shows us that the basic human inclinations are hope, greed and vice.

Into this world steps Walter Moody, a polite young man from Edinburgh, come to seek his fortune, who has been somewhat traumatised by a supernatural encounter on the barque Godspeed, a craft captained by a surly man with a scar on his cheek who signals himself straight off as our villain. Moody has sought refuge in the first hotel he could find and is hoping to steady himself with a calming brandy in the lounge. Only he happens by chance upon a gathering of twelve men, who have come together after realising their shared implication in a recent crime.

A hermit has been found dead in his shack; the town’s favourite whore has been discovered unconscious on the road, presumed to have attempted suicide; a fortune in smelted gold has turned up in the shack, marked as coming from a plot of land known to be worthless; two important shipping crates have gone missing; and the richest prospector in the town, a young man named Emery Staines, has disappeared. These are the elements of the crime, but what crime has actually been committed? How do these events all relate to one another? How do the twelve men, all of whom feel framed to some degree, prove their innocence and unravel the mystery?

A word before we go any further about crime fiction and literature. Genre fiction preserves the purity of the plot – so in romance girl meets boy, obstacles are encountered and solved to result in a happy ending with girl and boy aware of their love for one another. In crime fiction, a mystery is posed, chaos is unleashed, and then gradually the detective works to uncover ‘the truth’ in a moment of satisfying revelation which re-establishes order and safety.

The quality of the literary is to mess with these clear lines and their black and white conclusions, usually by adopting an unusual perspective on events, or by slowing what happens right down to allow the complexity of events to surface, or by challenging the assumptions that underline our sense of how things ‘should’ be, and how they ‘ought’ to come out. The Luminaries takes a particular literary approach to crime fiction by following the rules so excessively, so enormously, so neurotically, that they end up intriguingly bent out of shape.

So, a crime novel traditionally begins with an ending. The corpse represents the end of a story that has been happening in secret, invisible to the other people around. That story has to be pieced together so that we readers understand why it had to end the way it did. Okay, so far so good. The Luminaries begins by recreating the day of the crime in the most minute of detail. Each of the twelve men in the room will recount the story from his perpective (though the third person narrating voice actually tells all their stories in order to tidy them up a bit and give them coherence). And what we end up with is a huge, complex story that has, of course, spawned even more mysteries in the telling. Moody, who finds himself as the detective of the piece – the disinterested observer who can collate events into a neat order – sets about delivering the reader an extremely useful summary, midway through the novel, so that we now have the day of the crime clear in our minds.

But it’s not enough to reach anything like ‘the truth’. So in the good tradition of crime fiction, we move in two directions at once, forward as the implications of the crime are followed through, and backwards, as more information comes to light about how and why it was perpetrated. As we near the book’s conclusion, where everything should be clear and illuminated, the chapters themselves actually narrow down, galloping towards the end, as if focusing in on that last final revelation. Only when we reach the end, where we know everything there is to know, we have come full circle and are back at the beginning. But what does it all mean? It’s like a kind of pornography of plot has taken place: we’ve seen everything there is to see, and somehow along the way we’ve gone beyond the thing we really wanted to see. We’ve had so many revelations, we don’t know which one was the revelation, the one that held the key to the story. And yet we know what happened, and we end up with lovers united; it’s clearly a conclusion.

So all this is to say it’s terribly clever, and terribly tricksy, and the sort of book you really want to think about and discuss for ages. But at the same time it’s a rambunctious, rattling, plot-filled tall tale of a story, full of vivid characters and locations, enticing enigmas, blackmail, treachery, séances, shipwrecks, star-crossed lovers, thrilling courtroom scenes and much more besides. Rarely have I come across a book with so much energy! If we think of a plotline as a line cast by a fisherman zizzing out across the water, pure energetic potential, then imagine a narrative full of plotlines thrown out by each character, some forwards in time, some backwards into the past, and you have a three-dimensional cat’s cradle of a book humming with energy.

But what of the astrological dimension to the story? Each of those original twelve men in the lounge of the Crown hotel represents a star sign, and the charts at the start of each section show the constellation of the heavens on the day in question. What happens is predetermined by the stars (just as the plot of a novel is predetermined by its author). But this device which ought to remove all coincidence, all loose ends, collapses on itself when it comes to the Luminaries of the title. The sun and the moon are represented by the prospector, Emery Staines, and the whore, Anna Wetherall; they happen to be in love with each other and to be the ‘purest’ of the characters in the story. Yet their line of narrative is the craziest, a series of impossible and fantastic occurrences that resist all explanation beyond the most supernatural – or spiritual, if you’d rather. Love in the novel creates chaos that just cannot be tidied away by all those explanations, all those dovetailing witness statements, all the revelations and the secrets exposed. Of all the different energies in the novel, it is the fiercest, the most dazzling, and the most uncontrollable. I loved The Luminaries for all kinds of reasons – its audacity, its cleverness, its powerful storytelling, but I probably loved it most for having its heart in the right place.

How Not To Learn The Hard Way

Erickson, looking worryingly like Robbie Williams' granddad

Erickson, looking worryingly like Robbie Williams’ granddad

In the first half the twentieth century, a psychotherapist called Milton Erickson had a gift for teaching people in strange and unusual ways. All Erickson’s patients wanted to do was something supposedly quite normal – lose weight, make love, travel without fear, or develop a new skill – but it was as if some kind of enchantment held them hopelessly in place. Bewitched by fear or insecurity, they lived lives of confinement, until Erickson and his bizarre methods succeeded again and again in releasing them from their spell. His therapies often looked contentious, but what he did have was insight into the obstacles we like to erect in the path of the learning process.

Erickson knew all about being stuck. As a teenager he had nearly died from an attack of polio that left him paralysed and mute. Using body memories and an unfeasible amount of determination, he re-learned how to access his muscles and eventually regained control of his speech and his arms. Dissatisfied still that he could not use his legs, he decided to embark, alone, on a thousand-mile canoe trip, taking with him only a few dollars. He returned home able to walk with the help of a cane, the ordeal having taught him how to push himself beyond what he believed to be his physical, mental and emotional capacities. These experiences restored his body to him, but they also gave him much insight into the complicated process of getting people to learn things to which they have an inbuilt resistance. He knew that minds are bewitched by the magician’s sleight of hand and powerfully affected by the experience of an ordeal, and he made use of these different mental triggers in his therapeutic process with great cunning and invention.

He was particularly successful at treating sportsmen who were struggling to reach new levels of achievement. One of his case histories concerns a young American high school boy who won a gold medal at the Olympics under his tutelage. When Erickson first met Donald Lawrence, he had been practicing the shot put for a year and theoretically had everything going for him. He was six foot six, 260 pounds of pure muscle and trained by an ambitious coach. But he was still significantly short of attaining a national high school record. Erickson told him the story of how Roger Bannister found the right frame of mind to break the four-minute mile by recognizing that he only needed to shave a tenth of a second off the previous record. He said to Lawrence, ‘You have already thrown the shot fifty-eight feet. And Donald, tell me honestly, do you think you know the difference between fifty-eight feet and fifty-eight feet and one-sixteenth of an inch?’

Over the next few sessions, Erickson would repeat this technique, lingering over the hard to conceptualise difference between fifty-eight and fifty-nine feet on an athletic field, or as he put it, enlarging the possibility for the young man. Two weeks later, Lawrence set a national high-school record.

Lawrence wins his Olympic bronze medal

Lawrence wins his Olympic bronze medal

Having proven himself to be a magician, Erickson had the boy in the palm of his hand. A few months later, he came to Erickson for advice about the Olympics. ‘You are just an eighteen-year-old kid,’ Erickson told him. ‘It would be all right if you bring home the bronze medal.’ Which Lawrence promptly did. Four years later, Erickson advised him that it would be fine for him now to win gold. By the time he stopped working with him, Lawrence was throwing the shot put sixty-eight feet and ten inches, all on the basis of a potent cocktail of numerical confusion, self-belief and a dogged devotion to the magic of authority.

Erickson’s success was based on the recognition that the conscious mind has really very little say in what we actually end up doing. All those motivational talks, all that pumping oneself up, all that pleading and scolding that goes on inside our heads is so much white noise. What’s actually in control is a small, piggy part of the self, stubborn, well-defended and unwilling to budge. Erickson’s methods depended on implementing change by tiny, tiny increments. The natural inclination is to rush towards change, trying to attempt far too much in one go and ensuring failure.  Instead, he encouraged his patients to consider how to make a two percent change to their situation. It had to be something negligible, something almost ludicrous in order to evade all those internal censors, hell-bent on assuring continuity. For once a little change has been made, change itself became a more acceptable concept, and another step in the right direction would be much easier to undertake.

But aligned with this insight was Erickson’s covert use of authority. Authority is generally what most of us appeal to in order to get the piggy part moving. Do it, or else, is the classic default setting for action. But Erickson’s authority was benign when he worked with Lawrence. Erickson was known as a shrewd judge of character, quick to exploit a patient’s foibles, and when he saw the docile, hard-working Lawrence steered into his consulting rooms by a determined coach with his eye on high school glory, he must have recognized a personality that would readily and willingly submit.

A relationship to authority resides at the heart of any learning process. The fear of the teacher’s wrath, the fear of the exam, the fear of public humiliation are undoubtedly motivating factors. But the stick isn’t enough on its own – there must be a carrot too. And the flip side of authority, its gentle alter ego, is the act of belonging. We submit to education in the first place in order to belong to our world, to a particular culture or society and its ways of thought. Belonging is a hidden, stealthy part of the things we learn, but it is all the more powerful for being understated. The young shot-putter belonged entirely to Erickson, as his faithful and loyal disciple. The sheer power of that belonging gave him the confidence to do whatever it was that Erickson said he could do.

For most of us, the point of thinking is to reach a point where we don’t have to think any more. A point where our ideas are organised, fixed and justified. And that point is usually one that is terrifically satisfying in relation to belonging – our ideas please our parents or our teachers, they seem in line with the famous figures we admire, the class we aspire to, the religion or political party that impresses us. It’s why intellectual arguments, no matter how brilliant they are, rarely persuade people to think otherwise, even in situations where objective, rational arguments might be recognized as extremely valuable. We have already thought ourselves into a position that feels secure and correct. To have to move on from it, to undermine all we have learnt to master, to face challenges, new ordeals, opposing thoughts, well, it’s no wonder that it’s a ghastly, unnerving prospect for anyone.

Erickson showed how knowledge is not just an acquisition based on logic, but one fraught with emotion and the need for security. We become emotionally attached to what we think we know, and so the greater the change in our knowledge, the more emotionally challenging it feels.

This post is a sort of indirect response to two fantastic articles:  Laura Miller’s brilliant continuation of Eleanor Catton’s article on literature and perceived elitism (after another twitter storm over the use of the word ‘crepuscular’ in the Paris Review).

Critical Theory; A Life

Early in October 1988, I rocked up to the inaugural lecture of the modern critical theory paper, a module I’d signed up for because it sounded new and exciting. Cambridge agreed. The lecture hall was packed out, with most of the English faculty crowded into the front rows and, quite shockingly, my own lecturers and supervisors hogging all the seats at the back. I had never seen the grown-ups, as it were, attending undergrad lectures before. The handful of modern linguists who were actually going to sit the paper, myself amongst them, were submerged by a sea of interested parties. Cambridge had toyed with theory for a while, famously inviting the French Daddy of deconstruction, Jacques Derrida to give a guest lecture, in which he infamously spent the hour discussing the white space between the title of a work and its first lines. But this was the first time that the university had decided to create a syllabus, teach the theory and examine it. For a place that in its Tudor infancy spent a couple of hundred years dedicated to the works of Aristotle before moving onto anything else, this represented swift progress.

It was the Modern Languages faculty that sponsored the paper because theory, as we were about to learn it, had exploded out of the Left Bank of Paris at the end of the 50s. In 1958 the literary journal Tel Quel was founded, and over the next 24 years it attracted a swarm of cultural and literary theorists. Postmodernism, post-structuralism, psychoanalytic theory, feminism, postcolonial theory, reader response theory, these were the ideas setting the intellectual world alight.

At almost the same time in Cambridge (1959 in fact), the biggest ever fight between the sciences and the arts was taking place. In the red corner was C. P. Snow, who criticized the ‘snobbish’ culture of intellectuals for holding back the progress of science and technology, which he believed were about to change the world. In the blue corner was literary critic F. R. Leavis, who laced up his gloves and declared that literature was the place where everyone got to discuss what was actually happening in the world, unlike the sciences which belonged exclusively to those with advanced degrees. Everyone could read and have an opinion on the new books by Graham Greene and Kingsley Amis, but only a handful of people could understand the latest developments in quantum electrodynamics.

There was no clear winner to the debate, but over the next 25 years science and technology gained the upper hand in the cultural imagination. Scientists were increasingly seen as the saviors and pioneers of Western society, literature a leisure pursuit for a minority. Hardly surprising, then, that theory, the closest literature would come to a science of its own, should look so enticing as a way of perking up any flagging interest in the arts.

But theory was exciting, too. I loved the ideas in it, and how audacious and challenging they were. I enjoyed the process by which those ideas went from being ludicrous at first glance to naggingly plausible. Psychoanalytic and feminist theory were the areas that interested me the most. I was intrigued by the challenge the feminists faced to represent a group of people who wanted above all else to be seen as individuals. After centuries of an imposed identity as sweet, nurturing, charming, useless creatures, women longed to be different, but not instantly shoved into another set of adjectives: strong, competitive, dynamic, resilient, whatever. It’s an issue that, as far as I can see, has never yet been resolved. Women still get trapped into a ‘story’ by their cultures and forbidden from diverging from, or subverting, the party line. In my psychoanalytic studies, I was fascinated by the notion that a book, emerging from the mind of a writer, had the same characteristics as that mind: there was an evident surface meaning to it, but also an unconscious one, hidden in the shadows and ambiguities of the writing. Just that idea alone put paid to the belief that authorial intentions were the most important way to view a story. The author had as much chance of seeing his intentions come to fruition in narrative as he did making them come good in real life.

There were so many ideas thrown at me in that course, and I found it fun to play with them. I learned that theory was at its best when being applied to a book. Theory and practice struck sparks, and I grew adept at hunting down the places where they contradicted one another, or created a strange paradox. This was the point of theory for me – if it fit perfectly over literature and life, then we would be robots and our stories nothing more than a vast instruction manual. It was the very places where theory and practice buckled and fought one another that showed up what it was to be human, and how slippery and strange and surprising art could be.

My career at the university lasted as long as the modern critical theory paper did. It was retired a year or so before I stopped teaching, though it continues to this day to be part of the graduate syllabus. A couple of years after that, I noticed the tide turning and a surprising amount of hostility being directed against theory, as if it were in some way responsible for spoiling the field of literary criticism. The anger seemed to arise from the way some theory texts were written, essentially those heavily influenced by the discourse of philosophy. This was a bit unfair, given just how much theory there was available, and how much of it – including all my chosen areas of psychoanalysis, feminism and reader response theory – was perfectly accessible. Books by the likes of Jacques Derrida and Julia Kristeva suffered from being read in translation; I always found them much better in French. And then I think in the States, theory was taught in a vacuum, outside its historical context and away from its natural interaction with literature, which can’t have helped.

But it was hard to get away from the feeling that people were upset with theory because it made them feel stupid. Which says more about the stranglehold of insecurity than it does about theory (and more about the stranglehold of the grade over the notion of an education). I mean, I loathed algebra, which certainly made me feel stupid, but I didn’t believe it wasn’t useful to someone, somewhere. Without those decades of academics working on literary theory, we wouldn’t have the canon of women’s writing we do now, nor literature written by oppressed people of colour, both championed by intellectuals, studied in universities and finally merged with the mainstream. Political correctness wouldn’t exist, and our understanding of history would be infinitely poorer. Hundreds of novels and films and buildings and pieces of music and adverts wouldn’t have been inspired or influenced by theory.

But I wonder whether the ultimate reason for the anger against theory lay back in that debate between Snow and Leavis. Leavis had argued that literature was for everyone in a way science was not. Literature has the power to bring us together to discuss what is happening in society, and maybe we are wired up to want that. We don’t seem to mind the inaccessibility of science, but we do mind if stories get talked about in ways that seem exclusive. If that’s the case, then it’s up to the general reader to keep the discussion going.