Apr. 6th, 2016

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Currently at Havelock: 0.9, which'll be the high for the day. Probably ... hopefully ... the last significant snowfall of the season today. This is a recording.

I went to two Easter dinners again this year, too (one of which interfered with, but mostly did not prevent, my watching the Jays opener). Well, anyway. I keep thinking lately of a guy saying after a conference paper he'd presented that the last thing he does when he's preparing a paper to present is he takes out all the examples. Which, at the time, I found pretty horrifying. I'm a little more sympathetic to that way of doing things now. Obviously I'm not doing things that way much, but I'm mindful of why it might be good to do it. Actually it was reading Margaret Laurence's collection of short stories set in Ghana that reminded me of it. There's just one story in the collection that has the same kind of feel as the Manawaka stuff, where you feel like this is Margaret Laurence writing about herself. The rest of it is more like stories told by a storyteller. As it happens you know that she was there and the stuff she's writing about is stuff she might have experienced, but it doesn't feel like autobiography à clef. I guess it was parts of The Diviners that also felt more like stories told by a storyteller that made me think that maybe she's gotten it together here, she's mastered the craft. But then Margaret Laurence would come busting back through. I do keep having to ask myself why I'm going on and on with Margaret Laurence when I'm so inclined to be hard on her ... and when reading her often makes me feel bad. (This is a, um, striking phenomenon in my life I am trying to turn my attention toward to at least see how much it is there: it seems like I have this tendency to do things that make me feel bad in order to avoid doing things that make me feel good. It may be that this is obviously a common tendency, but I wonder whether it might not be in some ways more pervasive than it appears, at least for some of us. The funny thing about wasting time playing stupid little games on the internet is that I don't just regret the time I wasted after it's gone; I'm pretty sure I actually feel worse while I'm playing them than I would feel if I were doing the thing I'm playing them to avoid doing--e.g., this week, going over the Angus book. (This general issue gets complicated fast for me by the fact that I'm so unsure whether so much of what I do is a waste of time, relative to other things I might be doing, or not. I am not at all sure whether writing this here now is a relative waste of time or not (and this is something that probably contributes pretty significantly to the fact that so many of my posts say "mood: uncomfortable" on them ... not that I wasn't uncomfortable before or wouldn't have been anyway). I have a very strong feeling that a better use of my time would have been to have gone to bed quite a while ago. I have another very strong feeling that if I'm not in bed now I should be spending this time on the Angus book. And so on and so on and so on. The thing about playing games is that they at least tend to dampen that noise down because they require so much concentration. But for me the noise is so often just dampened down into my guts.) And I have to float more than one bad reason to myself, but there's also this good one: it is interesting to watch her try to come to grips with herself. She says to Al that deceptiveness is second nature to her but I don't think much of it at all is self-deception. A lot of her fiction strikes me like Nietzsche writing so perceptively about the ressentiment of slavish natures because he knows it so well in himself.

I've been wanting to take up the question of why Margaret and Al write to each other in the way they do, or, I guess, at all. It isn't long into the letters before they start talking about the possibility of their being published. They say things about how it would be interesting to see how writers write to each other about writing, but there's disappointingly little in the letters about the mechanics of their writing. Mostly they moan and try to cheer each other up about how badly they think their writing is going. (There is one interesting point of difference in their "writing philosophies" that comes out: Al sees his writing as coming from the particular place where he is; Margaret shuts herself in to write. But then this is Margaret when she's writing the Manawaka books, which come out of the particular place where she was decades before, and then in The Diviners a bit where she is presently. Anyway, they never discuss it, just state it as a point of difference.) There's obviously something they need from each other, that each needs from the other, but it's hard to say just what it is. I feel like it's probably something like what motivates me to post this, all of this, here rather than keep it to myself ... which I'm not convinced is not what I should be doing. I've developed the practice lately, when I'm tempted to comment on something somewhere, of asking myself, what good would it do for me to say that? And then usually I don't say it.

Today I read "Horses of the Night", a story in A Bird in the House, which is about the pseudo-Margaret-as-a-girl narrator's relationship with her older cousin named Chris. Chris is a poor kid from a hardscrabble farm who has big dreams about seeing the world and all that. He gives the narrator a miniature leather saddle he's made, etched "with the criss-cross lines that were the brand name of his [imaginary] ranch, he said, explaining that it was a reference to his own name." This is one unfortunate thing about Margaret Laurence--there's often a few too many words; she too often can't resist explaining the joke. She also seems to have a hard time resisting a Symbol. As soon as you see a character named Chris, you have some idea what you're in for. But the way the story goes here is that the crucified really is forsaken. The narrator says that the feeling she got from the country around where Chris is from "was like the view of God which I had held since my father's death. Distant, indestructible, totally indifferent." Camping out there one night, Chris goes on a spiel about how it would be an "insult" to God to believe that he exists, because a God of a universe like this would have to be "brutal". Of the second world war that's approaching he says, "what kind of God would pull a trick like that?" And he says: "Most people don't like talking about this kind of thing--it embarrasses them, you know? Or else they're not interested. I don't mind. I can always think about things myself. You don't actually need anyone to talk to." Things go poorly for Chris and he is sent to war. He writes to the narrator and tells her that "they could force his body to march and even to kill, but what they didn't know was that he'd fooled them. He didn't live inside it any more." And then he ends up, apparently permanently, in a mental hospital, withdrawn into his fantasy world that had failed to materialize. So, another way of dealing with the failure of the real to reconcile with the ideal: stoicism, autism [1], Walter Mitty syndrome.

Anyway. I am convinced that all of this is in large measure a mistake, but a mistake that is very, very hard to get out of. In some way getting out of it means crawling out of your own skin. I'm hoping to say something about this in relation to Margaret Laurence's and Ian Angus's Scottish takes on history, and the prospects of escape from it.

[1] "The New Latin word autismus (English translation autism) was coined by the Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler in 1910 as he was defining symptoms of schizophrenia. He derived it from the Greek word autós (αὐτός, meaning 'self'), and used it to mean morbid self-admiration, referring to 'autistic withdrawal of the patient to his fantasies, against which any influence from outside becomes an intolerable disturbance'." https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Autism#History
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