Isaiah Berlin (1992)
In which the author searches for the infinite in-between
At some point during my undergraduate years (1987-92), I crossed paths with William Faulkner's Nobel Prize speech, delivered in Stockholm, December 10, 1950:
Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.
"The problems of the human heart in conflict with itself." The phrase galvanized me, and I have never forgotten it. "Only that is worth writing about," Faulkner claims. Struggles of the human spirit. How to move forward when you are conflicted even within yourself? But you do. You must. The choice, the consequences: the stuff of literature.
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Even today, I think Faulkner gave pretty good marching orders. Thirty years ago I wondered: how does one do that? After I moved to Saskatoon in the fall of 1992, I started to write what I called a novel. The only scene I remember from it involved a character remembering dancing in the streets of Chicago in 1968 with Abbie Hoffman. The theme was something about the end of the dream (i.e., the dream of the Sixties) and the possibility of its revival. The narrative was heavy with authorial interventions, per Kundera, and the plot headed nowhere.
In those days, my writerly ambitions were persistent and unfocused, in a word, dream-like. I knew what I wanted, but I had no idea how to get there. I had completed an undergraduate degree in English: Rhetoric and Professional Writing. I could tell you about Aristotle’s notions of proof, and I had written possibly a couple decent poems, but how I was going to pull off "becoming a writer," I had no idea. But I had moved half-way across the continent, had a day job and a room (bachelor pad) of my own, more free time that I knew what to do with, and a library card.
The Saskatoon Public Library, during the years I lived there (1992-94), won an award as the best public library in North America. I tried to find proof of this claim online but failed, still I remember it to be the case and, anyway, it deserves to be true. I lived scant blocks away from the main branch, and I visited frequently. Their collection was excellent and more than met the needs of my continuing independent studies. In those years, Betsy Warland was the Writer-in-Residence. I shared some work with her but for the life of me can't remember what.
I remember I had a short story around that time that used the metaphor of frames of a film—or more specifically, the gaps between the frames of the film—to highlight how there is always "missing information" in what we know about the world. This was more communication theory/McLuhan than it was Faulkner's conflicted heart, but it was consistent with my quest to define what it known and what is not. The Truth, so called.
The Saskatoon Public Library loaned titles by Henry Miller, and I read a number of them. Quiet Days In Clichy (1956) stood out. I once read that psychologists would assign this title to depressed clients. The book recounts Miller's down and out in Paris days of the 1930s, and yet his song of himself is rapturous, full of joy. One passage that stuck in memory was Miller digging through his garbage to find whatever he can find to eat, and he recovers—joy! bliss!—the half-eaten remains of a slice of toast. What could be better? Quite a lot actually, but the material prizes of the world weren't prizes worth having. Miller wasn't looking for them, had turned his back on them, and in those years so had I. Miller found joy in being, writing (there was also sex, the pursuit of women, of course, coarsely framed). Generally, I felt the frame of a simple life was the right one.
I checked out Kafka, The Trial (1925), The Castle (1926). What I brought to Kafka was the expectation that his work would be "difficult," but I didn't find that to be the case. I found it riveting and, of course, familiar. Why familiar? The question seems simple, but it isn't. On the one hand, the term Kafkaesque entered the language long ago, and it is generally known that a situation that strikes one as an example of "the absurd" is also "Kakfaesque." But the more interesting predicament we have with Kafka is that he seems to predict the twentieth century, the rise of authoritarian governments and the implementation of arbitrary powers. Some might also add: the rise of bureaucratic state. But Kafka worked in banking, where bureaucracy was well established.
So did Kafka predict or reflect the absurdity of the modern world? A bit of both, perhaps, but also it wasn't his purpose. What struck me when I read his two major novels 30 years ago, wasn't that they were absurd: it's that they were funny. Also, in those days, I had checked out of the library Kundera's Art of the Novel (1986), where he has quite a lot to say about Kafka. If I'm remembering correctly, he says that Kafka's earliest precursor was the cursed Job, whose life is turned into a hellscape in order to satisfy a wager between Satan and Yahweh. This leap in historical consciousness was stunning to me. Of course, I thought. Wondering how I had ever not known that.
In those years, I continued catching up on Kundera's catalogue. To stick with Kafka for a moment, I bought a copy in hard cover of Kundera's non-fiction title Testaments Betrayed (1993), wherein he reframes the hero of Kafka's post-mortem publishing history, his friend Max Brod, to be his literary legacy's betrayer. Brod wrote "explanations" of Kafka, framing him as a religious writer, which Kundera is certain he was not. In any case, I also read Kundera's short story collection, Laughable Loves (1969), and that helped little light bulbs go off. I had no idea how to write a short story, and I was starting to ask: What is a story, anyway? I was starting to think about structure, the elements of "story," and how I might start building them and putting them together.
In the summer of 1992, I had taken a week-long fiction writing workshop at the University of Toronto, part of a group led by Barbara Gowdy, who had recently published her short story collection, We So Seldom Look on Love (1992). The full quotation is, "We so seldom look on love that it seems heinous" ("Ode on Necrophilia," Frank O'Hara). A character in the title story has sex with dead bodies. When I went to look up the quotation, I was surprised that the final word was "heinous." I had remembered it as "it seems strange to us." "Heinous" is much more powerful, but "seems strange to us" might better describe the collection as a whole, which time and again forces the reader to view the world through unexpected lenses. Perhaps confirming Robert Frost's truth, "the path not taken makes all the difference."
In any case, at the end of the week-long workshop Gowdy told me to never take a workshop like that ever again: "You don't need it." She recommended that I read Cormac McCarthy. Years later, I ran into her again and she asked me if I had read McCarthy yet. I hadn't. I'm not sure why not. Later, I did, and I think I know why she suggested I look to him to learn something about myself, my approach to stories. Something to do with compression of language and emotional intensity. Because the exercises Gowdy had us to in that class brought that out, and I found it easy to do, while others in the class struggled. In one exercise, she asked us to have two characters talk to each other, where one is trying to reveal something without actually saying it. I did a dialogue about someone confessing an affair, using only speech tags, as Philip Roth had recently done in Deception (1990). That little piece was later published in a student literary journal at the University of Toronto, Victoria College (1996). I also wrote a short piece for that workshop, I don't remember the purpose, but it was later published in The New Quarterly as "Waiting for a Miracle" (1996).
In Saskatoon, as I struggled to get traction with my fiction, I thought again about what Gowdy had said, the work she had enabled me to produce. I also closely read, studying for structure, Eric McCormack's Inspecting the Vaults (1987). Gowdy had recommended I look at William Burroughs's Interzone (1989), which included pieces from various stages of Burroughs's career, showing how he had progressed, how his work had become more complicated, and I did find a copy of that book and considered it good advice. Still, my fiction writing success was haphazard. I had more learning and living to do before I could at least half say I knew what I was doing as a writer.
Meanwhile, I continued to make active use of my library card. I read all of Roddy Doyle's Commitments Trilogy, plus Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha (1993). The simplicity of the language (compressed sentences, emotional intensity), particularly in Paddy Clarke, impressed and influenced me. It had something in common to the work I'd done for Gowdy. I read the early Jeanette Winterson titles: Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985), Boating for Beginners (1985), The Passion (1987), Sexing the Cherry (1989), Written on the Body (1992). From the latter title, I will never forget this pivotal question: "Why is the measure of love loss?"
Later I would read Winterson's Art & Lies (1994) and Art Objects: Essays in Ecstasy and Effrontery (1995) and then nothing of her work until her memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (2011). I'm not sure what I took away from her work, except that art as art was important and every individual voice is powerful and must be heard. I loved everything about her work, the humour, the joy, the seriousness, the frivolity. I saw her one time at Buddies in Bad Times in Toronto, smuggled into an audience full of lesbians. In the Q&A, one young woman got up and started her question with: "I find you very interesting." Pause. General laughter. Blushing audience member. Winterson pinching herself, waiting for the question to arrive.
In 1992, Spike Lee released his film biography, Malcolm X. That put The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965) back in book stores. I'd read a chapter of The Autobiography in a class at Waterloo, the chapter where Malcolm tells of reading the entire dictionary while in prison. Now I read the entire Autobiography -- and recommended it to everyone I met. Over the years, I think I've bought to give away a half-dozen copies. In those years I also read Conversations with Toni Morrison (1994) and William Faulkner in the University (1959).
In 1957 and 1958 William Faulkner was Writer-in-Residence at the University of Virginia. During that time he held thirty-seven conferences and answered two thousand questions on a wide range of concerns, from exegetic problems in his novels to the role of writer in modern society. Almost every word was recorded on tape, and the result is the classic Faulkner in the University.
What I remember from the Faulkner book, is he was asked if he read his contemporaries, and he said he didn't. He said he read three works over and over: Don Quixote by Cervantes, the plays of William Shakespeare, and the Bible.
When I was at the University of Waterloo, I'd made note of a comment in one of the Norton anthologies that Philip Roth was maybe the best writer of the second half of the twentieth century, so I started to keep an eye out for him. The first Roth title I picked up, on a remainder table at the Cole's in the Waterloo mall, was The Prague Orgy (1985), a novella and "epilogue" to a trio of "Nathan Zuckerman" novels. None of the context made any sense to me (I was starting at the end), but we were post 1989 and eastern Europe was again a topic of interest. It was also a topic I'd explore vis a vis Kundera and Kafka, whom Roth was clearly referencing, as everyone must if there story is based in Prague. (Twice I saw Christopher Hitchens tell the same joke. If you are in Prague, you must reference Kafka, he said. He didn't think it was so, but in Prague he was pulled from his hotel bed by mysterious police who refused to say what he was being charged with. Inexplicable, Hitchens shrugged; absurd, yet true.)
Someone in Saskatoon also recommended I read Martin Amis's Dead Babies (1975), a parody of Agatha Christie's country-house mysteries. The Saskatoon Public Library had a copy, and I read it, shocked and trilled by its depravity and cynicism. Through the rest of the 1990s, I read more of Roth and Amis. I'll have more to say about them another time.
My job in Saskatoon also introduced me to new sources of reading. My colleagues at Saskatoon Community Mediation Services were, first, all women, and, second, psychology majors. They were, in short, extremely confident and comfortable talking about, um, feelings, and they were equally determined that I would do the same. I had, to be sure, never found myself in such an equally terrifying and supportive situation ever before. Through my colleagues, I found new depths of language, verbal language, than I had ever known possible. I'm pretty sure they also thrust books upon me with titles such as The Dance of Intimacy: A Woman's Guide to Courageous Acts of Change in Key Relationships (1989) and The Dance of Anger: A Woman's Guide to Changing the Patterns of Intimate Relationships (1985), both by Harriet Lerner. They also introduced me to "family systems theory," and I read a book I later bought for myelf: Your Family - Your Self: How to Analyze Your Family System to Understand Yourself (1993) by William L. Blevins.
These books, to be clear, were not the types of books I was used to be reading, and yet they had a profound and life-long affect upon me. As much as any literary title I've ever read, these books changed my life. How? If I know one thing about human relationships, it's that—as good fences make good neighbours—good boundaries make relationships possible. And will save your sanity 10 times out of 10.
Which brings us to Isaiah Berlin, finally. Before I left for Saskatoon, a friend with whom I had poor boundaries gave me a book she had recently read, Michael Ignatieff's biography of his one-time Oxford professor, Isaiah Berlin: A Life (1991). At the time, I knew nothing about Berlin, but I took the book with me to Saskatoon, and what I read intrigued me enough to look up additional Berlin titles in the Saskatoon Public Library. The one that had a profound effect was Russian Thinkers (1978), which includes his famous essay: "The Hedgehog and the Fox."
From the Princeton University Press website:
“The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” This ancient Greek aphorism, preserved in a fragment from the poet Archilochus, describes the central thesis of Isaiah Berlin’s masterly essay on Leo Tolstoy and the philosophy of history, the subject of the epilogue to War and Peace. Although there have been many interpretations of the adage, Berlin uses it to mark a fundamental distinction between human beings who are fascinated by the infinite variety of things and those who relate everything to a central, all-embracing system.
According to Berlin, famous hedgehogs include: Plato, Dante Alighieri, Friedrich Nietzsche, Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Berlin's famous foxes include: Shakespeare, Aristotle, James Joyce, Leo Tolstoy ("a fox who all his life sought, unsuccessfully, to be a hedgehog").
Which are you? I think I'm clearly a fox, though perhaps, like Tolstoy, with some hedgehog aspirations.
Russian Thinkers took profound hold of me, I suppose, because it connected dots I'd been seeking to connect. It provided a framework, a history of ideas, that grounded at its core the ability to hold paradoxical ideas without the anxiety of contradiction. Put another way, Berlin wrote about how ideals, such as truth and justice, could be at time incompatible in the real world, and yet ought to remain committed to both. This is probably a poor paraphrase, but what I remember is Berlin traced the history of 19th century Russian ideologues, philosophers, and writers, and showed how the quest for purity of thought and action led to the 1918 Revolution, as revolutionary ideals took hold in Russia and the moderating influences in the culture, writers such as Turgenev, were pushed out.
I was working at this time, as I said, at Saskatoon Community Mediation Services, and "theories of conflict" was our stock and trade. Our professional position was that conflict was normal and inevitable in human relationships, and the matter of concern wasn't whether conflict existed; it was, where you have conflict, how are you managing it? Well managed conflict can be a boon for everyone. If all parties can bring their issues to the surface, and the negotiation can be an open exchange of thoughts, ideas, and, yes, emotions, then the best outcomes are possible. From this we get the phrase: win/win. It's a fox-based approach, surely. Hedgehogs may see only domination/submission.
As I was thinking through "how to write short stories," I was also thinking story = drama, drama = conflict, conflict does not need to mean winner/loser. How do we dramatize the middle ground? The moderate narrative? It's a tricky proposition, and most storytelling doesn't even attempt it. In fact, it does the opposite. It asks, instead, how can we increase the stakes? I was wondering, how can we lower the stakes -- and still make things interesting?
As I contemplated writing this piece, I wondered if I could say something about Berlin and W.H. Auden. As part of my masters degree at the University of Toronto (1995-96) I took a course on Auden and read his Collected Poems (1945). Berlin and Auden shared a rhetorical approach, towards deep calm, away from firey purity. Yes? I Googled the two of them. This was the result (by Peter Levine, 2014):
Isaiah Berlin was “Auden’s lifelong friend,” and on the surface it would appear that the two men held similar views: resistant to ideology and tolerant of human beings in all their crooked particularity. In his essay on Turgenev, Berlin wrote: “The dilemma of morally sensitive, honest, and intellectually responsible men at a time of acute polarization of opinion has, since [Turgenev’s] time, grown acute and world-wide.” Mendelson summarizes Auden’s response:
Whatever Berlin intended, a sentence like this encourages readers to count themselves among the sensitive, honest, and responsible, with the inevitable effect of blinding themselves to their own insensitivities, dishonesties, and irresponsibilities, and to the evils committed by a group, party, or nation that they support. Their “dilemma” is softened by the comforting thought of their merits.
This is an example of how far Auden’s journey had taken him: from ideology to the anti-ideological liberalism of Isaiah Berlin, and then beyond that to a stance of deep self-criticism in which even anti-ideology is an ideology. As Mendelson notes, Auden dedicated “The Lakes” (1952) to Berlin. This poem is about preferring homely lakes to the great ocean, and enjoying their diversity and particularity. Berlin might agree, but Auden inserts a warning (not quoted here by Mendelson): “Liking one’s Nature, as lake-lovers do, benign / Goes with a wish for savage dogs and man-traps.”
"The anti-ideological liberalism of Isaiah Berlin." That's a good summary of my take away from Berlin three decades ago. It influenced me to continue my search for the "in-between" places and confirmed for me that it's in the centre where the most interesting things happen. And like the spaces between film frames, the space in the middle is infinite.
In 1999, I would publish Thirteen Shades of Black and White (Turnstone Press). The title story is, of course, a reference to Wallace Steven's Thirteen Ways of Looking at at Blackbird (1917), a nod to the fragmentary nature of "reality" and the multiple filters of life as we live it. But it was also a nonsensical statement, because there may be many ways to look at a blackbird, but "black and white" don't have shades (grey, on the other hand, we learned later, has 50). In my title, I wanted to infer that "black and white" are illogical, both wrong, both lies. Ideological conflict that require us/them, either/or, win/lose ... what we might have once called Cold War Logic ... are themselves the enemy. Peace, the dream of the Sixties, requires a coming together, a holding together of "the human heart in conflict with itself."
In 1950, Faulkner argued: "There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up?" We are surrounded by similar questions today: Will the planet even sustain life? Faulkner's gendered answer is problematic, but his core message remains: "The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail."
That may be naïve, but it's not absurd.
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