In a Different Voice, Chapter 1: Some Notes

I’ve just completed the first chapter of Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice. I’m undecided whether I’ll write about the book, but wanted to capture a few notes:

In the 1920′s, Freud struggled to resolve the contradictions posed for his theory by the differences in female anatomy and the different configurations of the young girl’s early family relationships [this is the overarching theme of the first chapter]. After trying to fit women into his masculine conception, seeing them as envying that which they missed, he came instead to acknowledge, in the strength and persistence of women’s pre-Oedipal attachments to their mothers, a developmental difference. He considered this difference in women’s development to be responsible for what he saw as women’s developmental failure. [P 6-7]

Given that for both sexes the primary caretaker in the first three years of life is typically female, the interpersonal dynamics of gender identity formation are different for boys and girls. Female identity formation takes place in a contact of ongoing relationship since “mothers tend to experience their daughters as more like, and continuous with, themselves.” Correspondingly, girls, in identifying themselves as female, experience themselves as like their mothers, thus fusing the experience of attachment with the process of identity formation. In contrast, “mothers experience their sons as a male opposite, ” and boys, in defining themselves as masculine, separate their mothers from themselves, thus curtailing “their primary love and sense of empathic tie.” Consequently, male development entails a “more empathic individuation and a more defensive firming of experienced ego boundaries.” [P 7-8]

Gilligan also reports differences in how children, ages ten and eleven, play together with boys’ games lasting longer because disputes are resolved more effectively, “in contrast, the eruption of disputes among girls tended to end the game,” due to girls tendency to protect a relationship.

Roger Deakin Archive

Notebooks from the Roger Deakin Archive at the University of East Anglia

Each of Roger Deakin’s three books, Waterlog: A Swimmer’s Journey Through Britain, Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees and Notes From Walnut Tree Farm are stunning, the apotheosis of natural history writing. The picture above is of Deakin’s notebooks, archived at UEA. One day I might spend a very blissful day thumbing through those books.

The Mild Boredom of Order

Gradually, my book shelves empty, as the contents are packed into an unthinkable number of boxes, ready for moving to the new house in a fortnight. Lamentably, the elderly couple who have bought my house plan to tear out the book shelves. I suspect they are not dedicated readers. They have no use for book shelves.

Packing the books carefully away brings to mind so many stories, theories, arguments, so many minds. Also, many unread books yet to be explored and become a memory (or be forgotten). These books are my literary curriculum vitae, mapping out the course of a life. And in packing them away, I am already anticipating with delight the unpacking, when they will be laid out on new shelves. It is impossible not to recall Walter Benjamin’s essay on book collecting.

I am unpacking my library. Yes, I am. The books are not yet on the shelves, not yet touched by the mild boredom of order. I cannot march up and down their ranks to pass them in review before a friendly audience. You need not fear any of that. Instead, I must ask you to join me in the disorder of crates that have been wrenched open, the air saturated with the dust of wood, the floor covered with torn paper, to join me among piles of volumes that are seeing daylight again after two years of darkness, so that you may be ready to share with me a bit of the mood – it is certainly not an elegiac mood but, rather, one of anticipation – which these books arouse in a genuine collector.

I like Benjamin’s ‘mild boredom of order’ as I contemplate how I might arrange the books on my new shelves. The same taxonomy, or shall I be bold and just shelve them randomly, at risk that Virginia Woolf might sit alongside Rebecca West?

Last to be packed will be the books that sit on the shelves beside my desk, those I like to have close to hand by Simone de Beauvoir, Samuel Beckett, Saul Bellow, Thomas Bernhard, Anne Carson, J. M. Coetzee, Lydia Davis, Roger Deakin, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Marguerite Duras, Geoff Dyer, T. S. Eliot, Gustave Flaubert, Nadine Gordimer, Peter Handke, Gabriel Josipovici, James Joyce, Franz Kafka, Heinrich von Kleist, László Krasznahorkai, Thomas Mann, Robert Musil, Vladimir Nabokov, Richard Powers, Marcel Proust, Philip Roth, Jean-Paul Sartre, W. G. Sebald, Susan Sontag, Stendhal, Robert Walser and Virginia Woolf.

My Late Discovery of Hitchens’ Essays

It was only after his death that I begun to read Christopher Hitchens. Unconsciously I had ignored his work, associating him with the fraternity of English bloviators that were his friends: Ian McEwan, Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie.

I’m reading his last book of essays Arguably and, though they are not without a familiar pomposity, quite enjoying them. As a proficient essayist Hitchens is able to interest me in subjects as diverse the early nineteenth century Barbary Wars (the first US ‘War on Terror’),  Benjamin Franklin’s wit and the death penalty.

Though only a quarter of the way through this 788 page volume I am so far hooked, not only by the diversity of subjects, but the penetrating quality of his well-researched essays. His Nabokov and Newton essays are so far my favourites. Here’s a taster of the Nabokov, a review of Lolita, which succeeds in offering me new insight into a well-loved fiction.

Once you start to take a shy hand in the endless game of decoding the puns and allusions and multiple entendres (the Umberto echoes, if I may be allowed) that give this novel its place next to Ulysses, you are almost compelled to agree with Freud that the unconscious never lies. Swinburne’s poem Dolores sees a young lady (‘Our Lady of Pain”) put through rather more than young Miss Haze. Lord Byron’s many lubricities are never far away; in the initial stages of his demented scheme Humbert quotes from Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage: “To hold thee lightly on a gentle knee and print on thin soft cheek a parent’s kiss,” and when we look up the lines we find they are addressed to Harold’s absent daughter (who like Byron’s child and Nabokov’s longest fiction, is named Ada). Humbert’s first, lost girlfriend, Annabel, is perhaps not unrelated to Byron’s first wife, Anna Isabella, who was known as “Annabella,” and she has parents named Leigh, just like Byron’s ravished half-sister Augusta.

Saul Bellow’s Hunger for the Universal

At Bellow’s memorial meeting, held in the Young Men’s Hebrew Association at Lexington Avenue and 92nd Street, two years ago, the main speakers were Ian McEwan, Jeffrey Eugenides, Martin Amis, William Kennedy, and James Wood. Had it not been for an especially vapid speech by some forgettable rabbi, the platform would have been exclusively composed on non-Jews, many of them non-American. How had Bellow managed to exert such an effect on writers almost half his age, from another tradition and another continent? Putting this question to the speakers later on, I received two particularly memorable responses. Ian McEwan related his impression that Bellow, alone among American writers of his generation, had seemed to assimilate the whole European classical inheritance. And Martin Amis vividly remembered something Bellow had once said to him, which is that if you are born in the ghetto, the very conditions compel you to look skyward, and thus to hunger for the universal.

From Christopher Hitchens’s review (2007) of two Library of America collections of Bellow’s fiction. In Arguably this easy is entitled Saul Bellow: The Great Assimilator (pages 62-63).

Though I’d agree with the central premise of McEwan’s position, I’d couple Bellow and Philip Roth as heirs to European classicism.

The Snares of Consciousness

I’ve taken to skimming Alex Rosenberg’s The Atheist’s Guide to Reality. Though I agree fully with the book’s premise, and particularly like the bracing concept of nice nihilism, the writing style is supercilious and wearing. I have however made many notes, including the one below.

To escape the snares of consciousness, we won’t really need much empirical science about the mind. This is fortunate, since there isn’t much yet. The real science of psychology is only just getting started now that we have some tools for figuring out how the brain works. Producing results in psychology is going to be very difficult because it is the hardest science. It is harder than quantum mechanics or superstring theory. This is not because the right theory of how the brain works requires a lot of math we can’t make sense of. The full story about the brain will be complicated because it is such a fantastically complicated organ.

Dusklands by J. M. Coetzee

It is by lowering or changing the status of the Other that we unleash the possibility of inhumanity. Acts considered inhuman if applied to family or friends become permissible, in certain circumstances, if we label the Other as enemy, animal or, if times permit, slave.

Eugene Dawn, in the first part of Dusklands, writes an avant-garde report detailing techniques for psychological warfare (PSYWAR in today’s military terminology) in The Vietnam War. The methodology may be primitive by the standards of institutionalised barbarism in contemporary Abu Ghraib or Gitmo, but the techniques designed to dehumanise the enemy are eerily familiar. It becomes quickly evident that Dawn’s participation, to what extent is never clear, has desensitivised him to the point of giggling at the memory of “a mother with her son’s head in a sack, carrying it off like a small purchase from the supermarket”. His psychosis leads eventually to a mental institution, after a chilling scene that culminates in Dawn stabbing his son.

The second part of Dusklands introduces Jacobus Coetzee who bears none of the anxious guilt of Eugene Dawn. An eighteenth century elephant hunter, in what is now Namibia, Coetzee is beaten and humiliated by local Bushmen that he considers “wild animal with an animal’s soul”. Coetzee later wreaks a terrible revenge on the Namas Bushmen. His part of the narrative is told through lecture notes and a report that reveals the depth of racist egocentricity.

Coetzee’s (the author, not the elephant hunter) persistent themes of violence and casual racism are to the fore of this first novel, as are the broader questions he poses of authorship and identity. The second part of Dusklands suggests a superficial Conradian influence, though I wondered whether this straddled the thin line between homage and parody.

Anselm Kiefer White Cube Exhibition

I might have been born into a very literal sense of chaos, but in fact that state is true of all of us.

To the White Cube today for the Anselm Kiefer: Il Mistero delle Cattedrali exhibition, which does not include the painting below. The exhibition paintings are colossal, in size and impact, truly breathtaking. If you’re in London don’t miss the show.

Aschenblume, 2004 - Anselm Kiefer

Kiefer studied with Joseph Beuys in the early 1970s, but soon began to develop his own, deliberately indigenous set of subjects and symbols that he used to explore the fraught territory of German history and identity. In his muscular artistic language, physical materiality and visual complexity enliven his themes and content with a rich, vibrant tactility. His subject-matter ranges over sources as diverse as Teutonic mythology and history, alchemy and the nature of belief, all depicted in a bewildering variety of materials, including oil paint, dirt, lead, models, photographs, woodcuts, sand, straw and all manner of organic material. By adding found materials to the painted surface of his immense tableaux, he invents a compelling third space between painting and sculpture. Recent work has broadened his range yet further, and in 2006 he showed a series of paintings based around the little-known work of modernist poet Velimir Chlebnikov (1885-1922). Few contemporary artists match Kiefer’s epic reach, and his work consistently balances powerful imagery with acute critical analysis.

The Crisis of Literature

Hardly a year goes by without a novelist, poet, or critic coming forward to express this sense of sourness, which is actually a compound of despair and resentment. Despair, because every department of literature seems to undergoing crisis, a multiple organ failure of the kind that leads inevitably to death; resentment because of the contemporary American writer’s sense that he has been like the final investor in a Ponzi scheme, having bought into the venerable enterprise of literature only to discover that it is on the verge of default.

Adam Kirsch in his Why Trilling Matters, offers this quotation before revealing that it comes not from any contemporary soothsayers of the demise of literature, but was written in 1952 by Lionel Trilling.

Of Kirsch’s book I am torn; the reviews are good, but I have found Trilling’s writing thought-provoking but tedious. The TLS review is available. Let me know if you have read it and found it worthwhile.

Zona by Geoff Dyer

Without reservation, I am a deep-seated admirer of Geoff Dyer’s work. Since reading his D. H. Lawrence book I have continued through each of his titles. Last year I went to a talk that Dyer gave on Camus, (available here, but registration needed for the full video. It is worth it when you have a free 55 minutes.), when he spoke of Camus as a kindred spirit. It is a similar, extraordinary kinship I feel for Dyer’s writing. There is a connection beyond some murky similarities in our backgrounds.

Dyer’s latest book Zona has as its foundation Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker, which has haunted me through three successive viewings. I am far from finished with Stalker so I am thrilled Dyer chose (and was permitted) to weave his discourse around (almost) a shot by shot post-mortem of the film. If you haven’t read Dyer before or seen Stalker, I recommend you watch the film and start elsewhere with Dyer.

At one point Dyer writes,

There are no clichés in Tarkovsky: no clichés of plot, of framing, no clichés of music to underline the emotional meaning of a scene (or, as is more usually the case, to compensate or make good for an emotional meaning that would be absent were it not for the music). Actually, we need to qualify this slightly; there are no one else’s clichés in Tarkovsky.

By the time you’ve read several of Geoff Dyer’s books, fiction or non-fiction (these categories become irrelevant), the same statement could so easily apply. Conceptually and in its realisation Zona is reliant on Dyerian cliché, but that is not a negation of the book’s virtuosity. Dyer’s writing is idiosyncratically brilliant for its immunity from the traditional contrivances of literature. Ostensibly about Stalker, Dyer digresses far from his original theme. This latest Dyer is brilliant, but on this occasion please don’t expect objectivity.