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Mirrors As Augury

A type of cipher seemed to operate in my general experience of life. As in a corridor of mirrors, a single image is reflected again and again to an endless depth. Things that I had seen in the past were clearly reflected on those that I encountered for the first time, and I felt that I was being led by such resemblances into the inner recesses of the corridor, into some fathomless inner chamber. We do not collide with our destiny all of a sudden. The man who later in life is to be executed is constantly—every time that he sees a telegraph pole on his way to work, every time that he passes a railway crossing – drawing an image in his mind of the execution site, and is becoming familiar with that image.

—Yukio Mishima, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion

Finding What You Came To Find

Gathering is peculiar, because you see nothing but what you’re looking for. If you’re picking raspberries, you see only what’s red, and if you’re looking for bones you see only the white. No matter where you go, the only thing you see is bones. Sometimes they are as thin as needles, extremely fine and delicate, and have to be handled with great care. Sometimes they are large, heavy thighbones, or a cage of ribs buried in the sand like the timbers of a shipwreck. Bones come in a thousand shapes and every one of them has its own structure.

—Tove Jansson, The Summer Book

Prolonging the Present as Praxis of Prolepsis

“Talking to you on the phone now is part of the story of my trip to Belgrade, and so is the fight in the café. And when you tell yourself the story of your trip to Hungary, Sanja will be part of it.”

“That’s true,” I said.

“For a while now I’ve been conscious of a tension in my relationship with you,” Svetlana said.

“And I think that’s the reason. It’s because we both make up narratives about our own lives. I think that’s why we decided not to live together next year. Although obviously it’s also why we’re so attracted to each other.”

“Everyone makes up narratives about their own lives.”

“But not to the same extent. Think about my roommates. Fern, for example. I don’t mean that she doesn’t have an inner life, or that she doesn’t think about the past or make plans for the future. But she doesn’t compulsively rehash everything that happens to her in the form of a story. She’s in my story—I’m not in hers. That makes her and me unequal, but it also gives our relationship a kind of stability, and safeness. We each have our different roles. It’s like an unspoken contract. With you, there’s more instability and tension, because I know you’re making up a story, too, and in your story I’m just a character.”

“I don’t know,” I said.

“I still think everyone experiences their own life as a narrative. If you didn’t have some kind of ongoing story in mind, how would you know who you were when you woke up in the morning?”

“That’s a weak definition of narrative. That’s saying that narrative is just memory plus causality. But, for us, the narrative has aesthetics, too.”

“But I don’t think that’s because of our personalities,” I said.

“Isn’t it more about how much money our parents have? You and I can afford to pursue some narrative just because it’s interesting. You could go to Belgrade to come to terms with your life before the war, and I could go to Hungary to learn about Ivan. But Fern has to work over the summer.”

“You’re working.”

Left alone, I washed up, changed into the Dr. Seuss shirt, got in bed, and started writing in my notebook. I kept thinking about the uneven quality of time—the way it was almost always so empty, and then with no warning came a few days that felt so dense and alive and real that it seemed indisputable that that was what life was, that its real nature had finally been revealed. But then time passed and unthinkably grew dead again, and it turned out that that fullness had been an aberration and might never come back. I wanted to write about it while I could still feel it and see it around me, while the teacups still seemed to be trembling. Suddenly it occurred to me that maybe the point of writing wasn’t just to record something past but also to prolong the present, like in One Thousand and One Nights, to stretch out the time until the next thing happened and, just as I had that thought, I saw a dark shape behind the frosted glass and heard a knock on the door.

—Elif Batuman, The Idiot

The Film Is the Talking

A film should stand on its own. It’s absurd if a filmmaker needs to say what a film means in words. The world in the film is a created one, and people sometimes love going into that world. For them that world is real. And if people find out certain things about how something was done, or how this means this or that means that, the next time they see the film, these things enter into the experience. And then the film becomes different. I think it’s so precious and important to maintain that world and not say certain things that could break the experience.

In stories, in the worlds that we can go into, there’s suffering, confusion, darkness, tension, and anger. There are murders; there’s all kinds of stuff. But the filmmaker doesn’t have to be suffering to show suffering. You can show it, show the human condition, show conflicts and contrasts, but you don’t have to go through that yourself. You are the orchestrator of it, but you’re not in it. Let your characters do the suffering. It’s common sense: The more the artist is suffering, the less creative he is going to be. It’s less likely that he is going to enjoy his work and less likely that he will be able to do really good work.

—David Lynch, Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity

Only The Waters, Everywhere

“This is the uncertain plinth, the moving earth on which we live. Upon this stand the houses, the temples. We have built upon the silt, the drifting sands. Upon a sweeping, undulating, congealed sand-mirror. There in the depths, a different, mysterious river network flows. Certain rivers and rivulets plunge beneath the surface, and they flow there beneath the houses, the granaries, the temples, the stone-paved roads. They surge along toward the cemetery, the carcass pit, toward the Outer Village under the hill.
“A man does not even suspect that he is walking above congealed rivers with their slow sweeping movements. If these depths opened up, the houses, the wooden-spired belfries, the tiny temples that have stood here for almost a thousand years would all disappear. They were built from brick that was fired from clay, for in this land there was never stone. Here there are only the waters, everywhere. Loam and mud. Upon the earth, in the air, and down below in the depths, as well. But thanks be to the Almighty, blessed be His name, for He does not allow the waters below to break into our world.”
Here the rabbi paused in his remarks. The lights of the Sabbath candles were ablaze. They quivered as the rabbi spoke, because in the meantime he sighed very deeply. Whenever he took a breath, he struggled as if he were suffocating.

—Szilárd Borbély, The Dispossessed

Diagnoses, Morals, and Antlers

I found a book of fables and read two fables about harts. They both ended badly. In “The Hart in the Ox-Stall,” the hart hid from the hunter in an ox-stall. The hunter noticed its antlers sticking out of the straw and killed it, proving that “nothing escapes the master’s eye.” In “The Hart and the Hunter,” the hart deplored its legs for being less handsome than its antlers. Later, when it was running from a hunter on its legs, its antlers got tangled in a tree and it got killed. The moral was: “We often despise that which is most useful to us.” In general, the hart’s biggest problem was antlers. Or no, it wasn’t antlers at all, it was hunters.

—Elif Batuman, The Idiot

Craft & Mechanics of Prose II

Here is one final recitation of the five formal practices. Radiant ignition is the first. Sprays of light can bear their own weight or lift something heavy; they can, like a golden envelope, surround an object or, like a glistening worm, move inside it. Rarity, which comes second, is a property belonging to weightless things, such as shadows and reflections, or to things that are nearly weightless, such as butterflies and flower petals. Despite their fragility or filminess, objects with rarity can move in the mind with direction and force (the shadow of a flying spear) or can steer forward and back with highly distinct signatures, as in the case of Little Yellow and Sleepy Orange. Dyadic addition or subtraction, the third mental practice, may describe the movement of the mind from picture to picture (as happens even when the writer has no interest in making pictures move, but simply wishes to rotate our attention from mental object to mental object) or across a set of objects that we are to understand as a composite of some larger thing (“License my roving hands and let them go / Before, behind, between, above, below”); or it may involve some changing feature of a solitary picture that remains steadily before us in its entirety (as when the number of people in an otherwise unchanging room suddenly jumps from three to four). This dyadic addition or subtraction is assisted by the abruptness of imperatives, as well as by directional words from which the asserted picture falls away. Strong motion verbs (sprung, flung) attributed to actors in the picture seem often to describe the felt experience of the picture’s arrival in the mind. It sometimes seems that one may in one’s mind lay a hand on an image or perform mental outcomes that are handlike—stretching, tilting, folding—and these together constitute the fourth mental practice. The motion may take place across the full expanse of an image (Emma Bovary grows taller than she was a second ago) or at the periphery (Emma Bovary extends a foot), or at some small patch at the interior (Emma Bovary smiles). Although we usually think of the substance of the image as either remaining constant (when Emma nods, her head stays the same size) or growing (Emma becomes taller; Emma’s extending leg becomes longer), there may also be a subtraction, as when part of a face or body is folded away or disappears from view. Our nimbleness in setting images in motion often depends on our having (like Catherine Earnshaw pulling feathers out of a rent in the pillow) a heightened sense of the materiality or pseudo-materiality of images, and this may be achieved by what I have called the “It’s only cloth” and the “Hands-on” instructions. These, in turn, bring about a temporary derealization of the image, momentarily heightening our sense of the features it has by being a mental image and emptying it of whatever features it had by virtue of its reference to the external world. The fifth mental practice I have called floral supposition: it has four parts, each of which is floral but only one of which is strictly suppositional. One is the rotation of something from a horizontal axis to a vertical axis, which is regularly assisted by the presence of flowers in the image. A second is the destabilization of figure and ground, as when the floral background (whether horizontal or vertical) becomes the foreground figure, whereupon the motion may alternate back and forth between figure and ground or occur at both locations simultaneously. Third, flowers may be the surface on which actions are rehearsed, or the template on which other fainter motions are built. Here the subjunctive voice makes possible a grammatical prediction of the precise level of vivacity the imagining mind can achieve. Fourth, flowers produce motion by quickening the composition, both in the sense of bringing it to life and because they accelerate the movement; this mimesis of aliveness is the aspiration toward which the whole work of moving pictures is directed. The appropriateness of flowers as a template may be related to the fact that the material on which a writer works is not, as with other artists, paint or wood or stone or canvas or paper or strings or reeds (many of which are derived from plants), but something alive: the tissue of the writer’s own mind on which he or she practices mental composition, and the live tissue of the many other minds that will mentally recompose the pictures as they read. The writer is composing instructions for motions that will themselves take place on a surface—the quick of the human mind—that is already, always itself in motion.

—Elaine Scarry, Dreaming by the Book

Craft & Mechanics of Prose

As stumbling is the motion of all skating, so skating is the motion of all imagining: picturing requires “a pitch / Beyond our usual hold upon ourselves.” When the sound of sledding or skating is given onomatopoetically, it is usually given as a hissing sound—“We hissed along the polished ice in games,” says Wordsworth—or a schushshshing sound, or swishshshshing, or wishshshing, which is to say that the word “wishing” is itself onomatopoetic for the quality of motion that happens in imagining, the motion of gliding without resistance. In wishing, all moving pictures move as though on ice, sliding and gliding, as though there were no resistance, as though the proper mode of all verbs were the passive one where the question of agency, of inside and outside, of composing and taking dictation, has fallen into irrelevance. So an originary genius, William Blake, can see himself as a Secretary reverentially following instructions, and towering John Milton forever sits on the schoolroom chair where, as a young child, he was given his first Latin word to conjugate, “Musa, Musae, Musam.”

—Elaine Scarry, Dreaming by the Book

Philosophy of Stealing

When the world knows you are a Methodist minister, for instance, it will admit that you may also be a violinist, or a chemist, or a poet, and will credit you therefor. And so if it condemns you for being a thief, it should at the same time admire you for being a genius. If it does not admire you for being a genius, then it has no right to condemn you for being a thief.

Long ago, when I was six, I was a thief—only I was not then, as now, a graceful, light-fingered thief—I had not the philosophy of stealing. When I would steal a copper cent out of my mother’s pocketbook I would feel a dreadful, suffocating sinking in my bad heart, and for days and nights afterwards—long after I had eaten the chocolate mousse—the copper cent would haunt me and haunt me, and oh, how I wished it back in that pocketbook with the clasp shut tight and the bureau drawer locked! And so, is it not finer to be nineteen and a thief, with the philosophy of stealing—than to be six and haunted day and night by a copper cent?

It is admirable and beautiful beyond expression to sacrifice and give up and wait for love of that good that gives in itself a just reward. And only next to this is the throwing to the winds of all restraint when the good holds itself aloof and gives nothing. We are weak, contemptible fools who do not grasp the resources within our reach when there is no just reward for our restraint. Why do we not take what we want of the various temptations? It is not that we are virtuous. It is that we are cowards. And is it worth while to remain true to an ideal that offers only the vaguest hopes of realization? It is not philosophy. When one has made up one’s mind that one wants a dish of hot stewed mushrooms, and set one’s heart on it, should one scorn a handful of raw evaporated apples, if one were starving, for the sake of the phantom dish of hot stewed mushrooms? Should one say, Let me starve, but I will never descend to evaporated apples; I will have nothing but a dish of hot stewed mushrooms? If one is sure one will have the stewed mushrooms finally, before one dies of starvation, then very well. One should wait for them and take nothing else.

Be carefree, be light-hearted, be wicked—above all, forget. The deeds are what you will; the time is now; the aftermath is nothing; the day of reckoning is never. Love things lightly, take all that you see, and to the winds with regret! Gracious Devil, I whispered intensely, give me this and no other!

—Mary MacLane, I Await the Devil’s Coming

As Sour As The Devil Wills

Do you know why it is that I look back to the horizon at the figure of an unkempt, rough child, and why I feel a surging torrent of tears and anguish and despair? I feel more than that indeed, but I have no words to tell it. I shall have to miss forever some beautiful, wonderful things because of that wretched, lonely childhood. There will always be a lacking, a wanting—some dead branches that never grew leaves. It is not deaths and murders and plots and wars that make life tragedy. It is Nothing that makes life tragedy. It is day after day, and year after year, and Nothing. It is a sunburned little hand reached out and Nothing put into it.

“The End, the End!” I say softly and ecstatically. Yet I do not lean farther out. My hand does not loosen its tight grasp on the wooden stake. I am only flirting with Death now. Death is fascinating—almost like the Devil. Death makes use of all his arts and wiles, powerful and alluring, and flirts with deadly temptation for me. And I make use of my arts and wiles—and tempt him. Death would like dearly to have me, and I would like dearly to have him. It is a flirtation that has its source in mutual desire. We do not love each other, Death and I,—we are not friends. But we desire each other sensually, lustfully. Sometime I suppose I shall yield to the desire. I merely play at it now—but in an unmistakable manner. Death knows it is only a question of time. But first the Devil must come. First the Devil, then Death: a deep dark soothing grave—and the early evening, “and a little folding of the hands to sleep.”

—Mary MacLane, I Await the Devil’s Coming