Consider, for instance, this sentence, which follows a discussion of a scene in a film by Jean-Luc Godard: ‘It is the moment of non-construction, disclosing the absentation of actuality from the concept in part through its invitation to emphasize, in reading, the helplessness – rather than the will to power – of its fall into conceptuality.’ I have not made this up. These words are taken from Paul Fry’s A Defense of Poetry, published in the wholly respectable Stanford University Press in 1995. Mr Fry is professor at Yale. A crude but useful rule in the matters of intellect is that if you cannot explain something simply you probably don’t understand it quite as well as you imagine. – what a great rule it is, a shame it’s so rarely followed. People so often hide their ignorance or lack of original idea behind undecipherable language.
His Finnegans Wake is one of the few books that even the most austere scholars are allowed to admit to finding impenetrable. The earlier Ulysses is a different matter. It is a plentiful source of half-remembered soundbites among not just Dublin taxi drivers, but also precocious adolescents, flaky emigres, bar bores (of the erudite, hectoring, whiskey-quaffing variety), international flâneurs, crazed Hibernophiles, pottymouthed booksellers, journalists with English degrees and thieving literary stylists.
If you’re ever stuck in an uncomfortable conversation about a poet a foolproof way of knocking the conversation dead is to say ‘He helped me a lot when I was in a bad place.’ If you are talking to someone who isn’t English, he or she will want to hear about this bad place – a great opportunity to discuss something you really know about, namely yourself. And if you are talking to someone English, especially the male variety, absolute revulsion at the prospect of speaking about feelings will move the conversation into some much less torrid zone.
What steps should you take if someone confronts you with the ghosts of Milton or Hegel? In the words of one of my more passionately self-educated friends, ‘Run like hell. Consider buying a gun.’
Writing is a craft. It’s a process. It’s a drug. It’s a code. It’s a journey. It’s often a feat of typing as much as of invention. (These are all things I have read or heard.) It’s like carpentry, painting, gem-setting or dance. It is a conversation. It’s a love letter to the rest of the world. It is an act of discovery. It is a negotiation between author and reader. It is a way of storing information. It is at once a discipline and a form of freedom. All writing is creative. All writing is personal. All writing is rewriting.
If you detect a certain weariness here, you are right to do so. We write to empty our minds. We write to reveal ourselves and yet also to mask ourselves. We write because in doing so we get a better hold on life. But from all such statements there comes a whiff of cheese. The first rule actually, is this: read over whatever you write, and when you come across something you’re particularly impressed with, delete it. – I sometimes wish people would follow this advise, including myself. Usually those impressive things turn out to be the most embarrassing ones.
Of course, when I sit down to read, I don’t think in such terms. I certainly don’t say to myself, ‘Yes! My ethical sense is about to be engaged.’ I read because it gives me pleasure. But pleasure is always haunted by the suspicion that there are other things one could be doing. The reader is aware that choosing one book means deferring every other. – it is always a hard choice. I was creating my 2017 TBR yesterday and I really wanted to start reading all of those books at once. How do I pick one?
My review of How to Really Talk About Books You Haven’t Read