Where would we be without ongoing battles between professional journalism and blogging? We wouldn’t have the word ‘pooterish’ to describe the post I’m about to write, and what a loss that would be. I rather shot my bolt on the reviewing front this week because the only novel I read in full was the one by Cristina Garcia. I’ve been writing, which always drastically reduces the amount of reading I get done, and picking about in books here and there for my academic work. I’m changing direction in my motherhood reading now and starting to think about lost children. So I’m halfway through Carol Shield’s novel, Unless, which is very intriguing, and have lined up ahead Margaret Forster’s Over (in which a family comes to terms with the death of a daughter) and Amanda Eyre Ward’s How To Be Lost (main character thinks she catches sight of her missing sister, many, many years after she disappeared). I’m also thinking about good mothers, and have spent part of the morning watching Simpsons cartoons with my son (whose memory of their plots is pretty impressive). I love the one where Bart sells his soul to Millhouse for five bucks and then suffers all kinds of odd consequences, like being unable to see his breath on a pane of glass, or activate those sliding doors in stores. At bedtime Marge hugs him and says ‘Bart, your hug seems a little off. Is anything the matter?’ Just as he’s about to confess she shushes him with the words ‘A mother can always tell.’ Then she hugs him again, thinking about it. ‘It’s not fear of nuclear war. It’s not swim test anxiety. It’s almost as if you’re missing something.’ When Bart suggests he hasn’t got as soul Marge cracks up. ‘Oh no, sweetheart, you’re not a monster,’ she says, and exits smartly, leaving poor Bart staring wide-eyed into the darkness. I do like that bit.

The only other book I can report on is about dreaming, called Seeing in the Dark. It’s written by an academic, Bert States, but in a very accessible way. It’s beautifully written, actually, but it’s been annoying me a lot. States, a literary critic by trade, has become captivated by the process of dreaming and the range of scientific and neurological ways in which we might be able to account for it. The book is essentially a long drawn-out argument for the meaninglessness of dreams. They may be intelligible, States says, but they are not intelligent. They have nothing to tell us and are resolutely nothing more than the mind objectively processing images, unaware, as it were, that it has a witness.

Now I have nothing against this argument per se (except I should come clean at this point and say I don’t agree with it), but I don’t appreciate the way that States phrases it. To give him credit where it’s due, he is very polite about interpretative models of dream analysis, but his understanding of dreams is doubt-free and absolute, despite the fact that he begins the book saying that, fundamentally, we still have no idea why we dream, how dreams are created, or what work they achieve (if any) in the mind. Having got this out the way, he spends the rest of the book saying how things are – dreams are without meaning, dreams are nothing more than supercharged neurons colliding. As far as I know there is no hard and fast evidence to back up this approach, any more than there is for declaring that dreams do have insight to give us on the hidden parts of ourselves. I think there’s value in both approaches, but I also think they work best when helping to inform each other.

To be brutal, I have a problem with this kind of scientific approach because it takes hypotheses as the truth when they are often only best guesses. If you look back over the history of science, it changes, and absolute truths end up giving way to even more absolute ones, in tautologous succession. My experience has been that the best scientists are ruefully aware of the limitations of their knowledge, and do not make claims for their research that go beyond the cautiously conditional, but the popular conception of science loves answers and certainties. In a world of stem cell research, genetic engineering, and nuclear and biological warfare, I can’t help but think that keeping the nice, humble phrases ‘it doesn’t always work’ and ‘we don’t know the consequences’ in frequent use would be a good thing. Although he dislikes the misuse of science, my husband does fundamentally disagree with me about the dominance of scientific thought in our culture, being very much of the technical persuasion, and this leads to many lengthy and, frankly, fruitless discussions, as we are neither of us about to be convinced by the other. Perhaps any person just leans towards either the scientific or artistic perspective on the world, towards a preference for either answers or ambiguity, and there’s not much to be done about it.

Pushing the soapbox to one side, I’ll end with a photo of the new bookcases we’ve just had put into our sitting room. They were finished yesterday, and I spent the afternoon shelving books. I’m at the stage of just sitting and sighing over their beauty at the moment, and look – empty shelves! I really must try to be good and restrained as I am running out of free walls in the house.



23 thoughts on “Pootering

  1. I have never seen the word “pootering” before. I love new words!
    How fun to watch Simpson cartoons with your son— and to get to do so for work-related purposes is even better! a wise woman, that Marge.
    Not having read the book on dreams you discuss, I hesitate to comment. But I trust your description and found myself getting irritated by the sort of rush to “truth” that characterizes so much discourse these days, scientific and otherwise. You are absolutely right to say it behooves us to be a bit more hesitant and humble in our scientific conclusions.
    Marvelous shelves, by the way…and so very tidy! Will that last?

  2. My husband would agree with States wholeheartedly so I am not going to tell him about the book so he won’t get any fresh ideas. We find ourselves “discussing” the purpose of dreams every now and then. I think they are potentially interesting views into our psyches and my husband argues, like States, that they mean absolutely nothing. Round and round we go.

    I love your bookshelves. They are gorgeous. And so much free space. I give it thee months before they are filled 🙂

  3. Dreams lack “meaning” as poetry lacks meaning, or novels, or painting or music.

    What is a dream, but remembered random excitation of neural synoptic charges?

    What is a novel but graphic figures representing collision of phonetic elemental particles of language?

    The catcher here… is that there is no “meaning.” Anywhere.

    Only representative analogies.

    A certain type of (pseudo)scientific mind (Pinker, Dawkins)… while well grounded in their respective fields, miss altogether the difference that makes the difference when they stray from their own fenced in back yards. Wandering in strange and dangerous neighborhoods–they mug themselves and blaim the locals.

    A poem… or a religious text, for that matter (if you’re not a reactionary who wants to claim the text does the same sort of thing as science–without having a clue of what science is about either)is an invitation to a conversation. No, it’s not all interpretation… whatever the reader wants it to be. It’s conversation. The meaning is in the conversation.

    Interpretation is a product of those conversations, and may in turn become partners in further conversations.

    I would have to ask… is there any other way we can think of “meaning?” Human meaning? The kind of meaning that transforms this otherwise hostile universe into a humanly habitable world? … at least for as long as we lay down our arms… and converse.

    Dreams too can become part of our conversation. With ourselves. With others. In themselves, the way these poor limited souls, afraid for their very lives in the dark and threatening neighborhoods of… dreams, poetry, art, do what we all do… or did, as children. We say: it doesn’t exist! The monster under the bed is not real!

    Some of us learn as we grow up… to grow up… learn the language of what we fear, learn to give a language so that we can engage it… in conversation.

    What a pity. For those who still chanting their mantras of annihilation, working up the courage to put their bare feet on the cold floor of reality.

  4. What is an empty book shelf? I do seem to remember seeing some in this house at some point in the past, but I suspect it was the day I moved in and hadn’t yet had time even to unpack any books. It certainly wouldn’t have been the day after. Books, of course, having to be unpacked before anything else, even the tea making essentials. Thanks for mentioning ‘Unless’. It came up for our book group when I was too ill last year to read anything that needed me to think about it and I ducked out intending to return to it when I knew I could do Shields justice. Typically, it’s got pushed to the bottom of a great pile. You’ve reminded me to dig it out. In fact, a Shields retrospective wouldn’t be a bad idea.

  5. Aaaah, book shelves. Quite my favourite piece of furniture, unless you count that fat squashy sofa upon which I lie to read books and gaze upon my bookshelves.

    If you’re reading and writing about lost children, you should probably have a look at Anne Tyler’s The Amateur Marriage. And Carol Shield’s Unless – what a moving book.

  6. I am planning another set of bookshelves for the study. Yours look fabulous but for me, its going to be wall-hung shelves above the desk I think.

  7. I haven’t a clue where I stand on the whole dream question. I feel like they must mean something if our minds take the time to create them. Is it all just meaningless flotsam and jetsam left over from the days thoughts?

    I sometimes wonder how the mind works of the creator of The Simpsons. He must be something to live with!

    And the shelves are gorgeous! Don’t those empty spots just make you want to go out shopping? Or are you going to enjoy the negative space for a while? It’s so nice to be clutter free!

  8. Oh, and I had to add–I’m still listening to Sheer Abandon by Penny Vincenzi. I don’t imagine it is something you might want for your research, but it is about a young girl abandoned at birth at Heathrow Airport. It’s all a bit melodramatic, but I’ve finally discovered which woman is the mother (out of three friends who were traveling together when they were 18). It’s interesting seeing both sides–the girl who desperately wants to find her birth mother and the mother who is scared of being discovered. Not terribly scientific, but entertaining.

  9. My Great Grandpa used the word pooter to mean “fart,” as in, “oh excuse me, I pootered.” It’s a great word!

    I don’t know about the dream stuff, but didn’t Poe say that life itself is “but a dream within a dream?” It doesn’t really matter if dreams have meaning or not, just as long as they exist.

    Lovely bookshelves!

  10. Looking forward to your thoughts on Unless. I love Shield’s writing and was intrigued with the story of the novel…well, I won’t say anymore until you’re finished. Those bookshelves are LOVELY!

  11. The bookshelves are absolutely gorgeous! I love the dark wood. I hope you have a nice comfy chair in this room so you can spend as much time as possible in there.

  12. Litlove, for some reason your shelves don’t show up on my computer so I can’t admire them. As for dreams, as a psychologist I’d say States is in denial about the meaning of his own dreams! It’s a bit like cognitive behaviourists trying to convince people that there’s no such thing as the unconscious. I like Jacob’s point about dreams and poems etc. being a conversation. That there’s no fixed meaning but that creater and viewer (or author and reader) co-construct the meaning together.

  13. Eva – thank you so much! And I’m delighted you’re with me on the disguised hypotheses! TJ – to begin at the end – I do like to keep my shelves tidy but there comes a moment when they are completely full and books start to get placed horizontally above their companions… Then it’s time to start making cunning plans about where I can put more shelving! I think the fixation on truth is in counterpart to the insecurity that seems to be ineradicable in our culture. But rather than accept uncertainty, there is a tendency towards longing for impossible absolutes. And I am a very lucky woman to read and watch TV for my work – and I know it! Stefanie, LOL! You know me far, far too well. I did laugh about your husband – boy I find it a pain when mine is convinced he’s right on no better evidence than his own assertions! But that’s what I have my own blog for, right 😉 Jacob – what a wonderful comment and I hope you’ve posted it at your site as you sometimes do, so that more people can benefit from it. The concept of conversation you develop here is just wonderful. Ann – I feel sure you would very much enjoy ‘Unless’ and Shields is a fantastic writer. And alas, those shelves will not be empty for long! Charlotte – you have an unerring eye for my research! I read the Tyler a while back and thought it wonderful and have just this morning finished ‘Unless’ which was intriguing and strange and made me think a lot. So you are spot on with your suggestions. Tom – hello! Wall hung shelves sound wonderful to me too, in fact, I love shelves whichever way they come. These were a bit of a work of art, but boards and bricks are also acceptable to me. Good luck with yours! Danielle – alas, the empty shelves really make me want to shop! But I must not, must not. You’re so right about the mind of Matt Groening – it must be really quite something, and the brain is something that scientists have only the teensiest inkling of how it works. I daresay it will be amazing what they find out in decades to come. Oh and thank you for your mention of the Vincenzi. When you started to describe it I suddenly realised that I had read it! It was a couple of years ago now and I’d forgotten the title, but I remember the story. It was a most enjoyable read, and I ought to dig it out again for the mothers project. Chartroose – LOL about your grandpa! And you know, what you say about dreams existing is something several psychologists believe. Some think that if you can’t dream or have only nightmares, or utterly exhausting dreams then it’s a sign of emotional distress. Oh and by the way, I haven’t forgotten the meme you tagged me for – I’m really behind with all my blogging bits and pieces, but I will catch up! Verbivore – I finished it this morning and found it most intriguing. I will certainly be blogging about it. And thank you! I’m in love! Lisa – thank you so much! And I do, I do. I also have a sofa and a chaise longue in flopping distance. Very important for good book shelf appreciation! Bluepete – you’ll have to trust me, they are very nice. I didn’t realise until this comment (and a look at your blog) that you are a psychologist. How extremely interesting. I reserve the right to pick your brains about all manner of things psychology book-related!

  14. I love those bookshelves! I just wish I could get a closer look at the books … I think I’d probably react badly to the book on dreams too; I have a hard time with that kind of unwarranted certainty — it’s not only intellectually a problem but also potentially very embarrassing, if you are ever proved wrong.

  15. Just in case you don’t read my reply to your comments on my A Very Long Engagement post, I’m seeking your advice for my next Sebastien Japrisot read! Any help would be great. 🙂

  16. I disagree with States, too, for all the reasons you give and because many of my best life decisions have come as a result of dreams. Some of my favorite Bible stories are those where people dream their way to truth.

    And can you hear me sigh over those gorgeous shelves? Wow!

  17. Brick and board book shelves – my first book shelves 🙂 I have a theory that bookshelves look sterile if all the books are arranged in perfect order. I deliberately place several horizontal books on top of vertical volumes. It looks as though someone is using them. There is nothing worse than a lonely book. I read the “lost Children” phrase and wondered about the Lost Boys and J M Barrie. Then I thought of Golding and his Lord of the Flies and shuddered.

  18. I think a post self-described as pooterish, loses all its pooterishness. (Hopefully that’s true of comments as well …)

    I don’t know what stuff dreams are made of either. (I know. Sorry.) I’m skeptical about their being essentially random (though I suppose the seed for a dream could arise randomly, i.e. probabilistically, out of past experience). As you suggest, I think a hypothesis advocating a role for them in ‘information processing’/memory consolidation needn’t be incompatible with one suggesting they offer an insight into the pre-occupations or dynamics of the sub-conscious.

    I liked the contrast between answers and ambiguity: precision and (the quest for) certainty contrasting with an indefiniteness that is, to use your own felicitous description, spacious. Of course, whilst there is this clear contrast, scientific and artistic inquiries have their commonalities too. There can be an aesthetic inspiration to scientific investigation so that, whilst it foregrounds questions, it does so in an attempt to hold its own ‘mirror up to nature’, or to a portion of nature anyway. (To use Mary Midgley’s words, science is not omnicompetent. Not that you needed me to tell you that!)

    Of course just what that portion should be can be a matter of fierce dispute, especially when any trespass is considered not only inappropriate but accompanied by a misplaced certainty and indifference. I’d agree with you that science (or the appearance of scientific discourse) dominates our culture but, of course, it’s strongly contested as well. So, though not privy to his arguments, dare I say it, maybe your husband has a point too! (Disclosure: I’m a lapsed scientist.)

    – Just to add to the chorus: very nice shelves!

  19. Those are very lovely shelves, and I think I’m jealous. I also like the nautical painting above the mantle.

  20. Glorious shelves! I am turning a very becoming shade of green just looking at all those shiny empty inches.

    I don’t pay attention to dreams at all, but my husband’s grandmother was a traditional healer, and when he was little, she taught him all kinds of dream interpretation. To this day, he gets worried when he dreams about teeth.

  21. Dorothy – your comment made me laugh! Yes, quite embarrassing, I would think! It wasn’t possible to get a shot close enough to read the titles, but I’ll tell you that as you look at them, the right hand side is fiction and the left hand side non-fiction. Eva – thank you! I’ll be right over with a suggestion! Andi – I love the idea of you solving problems and coming to decisions in dreams. That’s rather cool. And thank you – I’m also sighing here, still! Archie – first of all thank you for the excellent suggestions on the lost child front, I shall follow them up. And you would like some of my other bookcases – they look very lived-in! Lokesh – you put that so beautifully and so well. I am in complete agreement with you. Oh and as for my husband being right, he’s just supported me through 18 months of unpaid leave, so he tells me I can never say that industry doesn’t support the arts 🙂 Hobgoblin – I generally have to submit applications to the domestic board for shelves a long, long time before they arrive. It’s much like real life town planning! My husband is also VERY fond of boats, so we have quite a few nautical scenes about. Hello boxofbooks! they won’t stay empty for long – that’s the problem! How fascinating to have a traditional healer in the family like that (although of course it might be annoying if you didn’t want to rub chilblains with raw onions or worry about dreams with teeth in them). I like all that kind of thing, so I’m a bit green about the grandmother!

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