I just finished reading J. M. Coetzee's Foe. It is superficially a retelling of the writing of Robinson Crusoe. That's interesting, but not the part I was interested in.

Because really, it's an exploration of the inherent darkness of writing, its seductiveness, the loss of fact in pursuit of truth, the loss of truth in the pursuit of a beginning, middle, and end. About how storytellers are always a little in love with their stories. About how authors warp and bend to fit their needs, starting with a stolen grain of truth and finishing with a masterpiece of fiction. About substance.

And I wonder: am I that author? Is writing inherently a process of theft, each one more clever than the last, until we are left with nothing but hollowed-out shells of the truths we have used?

My aunts constantly reinvent family stories. Each Christmas, they bring out the whole repertoire, each time making themselves the centerpieces of others' experiences. When I was young, my mother told me never to take what they said as truth without asking her first.

This fascinated me. Not that they lied, because I lied then and lie now, as does everyone. Not that they lied, then, but rather that they perceived their lies to be truth. That they could tell a different version of the same story each year. I began asking for the same stories, noting dissimilarities between each person's telling and the various tellings of a single person.

The project of documenting my family's inherently incomprehensible past thus became instead a project of understanding the mind of the storyteller.

What I post here is as true as I can make it. Yet I constantly resist the urge to invent myself, to tell stories that never happened, to embellish those that did. I don't want my sister to pull aside her children, ten years from now, to tell them not to trust me. And I live in a subtle but constant fear that one day I will not be able to know the difference between the stories I have lived and those I have lived only in my mind.
I am tired and cold, in the process of slowly reinjuring my rotator cuff, which was initially fucked up when a girl ran into me instead of sliding when I was blocking the plate. But I have warm beef fried rice in my belly and a night off work, so I think I'll be okay. At least for the moment.

The BBC reported on some interesting findings about subliminal messaging, namely that the brain picks up on subliminal messaging very well when it's not too occupied and poorly when it's being used.

Which, yeah, is kind of neat. But what really caught my attention was this paragraph:

Dr Bahador Bahrami, UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, said: "What's interesting here is that your brain does log things that you aren't even aware of and can't ever become aware of.

It makes me wonder how much I'll never know I know, how many of my decisions are made for me without my knowledge. It's unbalanced, disorienting. How much of my time is spent listening to a voice I'll never hear, watching a picture I'll never see? Is, say, a visual artist more able to tap into subliminal stimulation? What about the Romantics, who were obsessed with the sublime long before "subliminal" was ever introduced into the English language? Were they picking up on things the rest of us couldn't see? When Wordsworth and Coleridge wrote about emotion, nature, intuition, imagination, were they just picking up on Nature's subliminal messaging? The fact that they use the word "sublime" over and over, that it becomes almost an obsession for them, seems to indicate that this is the case, that they are aware they don't know everything they know. Like in Tintern Abbey, when Wordsworth writes

                    These beauteous forms,
Through a long absence, have not been to me
As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye:
But oft, in lonely rooms, and ’mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;
And passing even into my purer mind,
With tranquil restoration:—feelings too
Of unremembered pleasure: such, perhaps,
As have no slight or trivial influence
On that best portion of a good man’s life,
His little, nameless, unremembered, acts
Of kindness and of love. (22-35)


He's writing about an "unremembered pleasure," about "little, nameless, unremembered, acts." About things that don't register in the moment, but pass on to a "purer mind," to something sub[super?]conscious. Things that he can't write about, not really, because he's not sure they exist. Except in order for his world to function properly, they must exist, both within his own mind and in the minds of those around him. The abbey, the hedge-rows, the cliffs, imprinted themselves on him as a child, not only consciously (he remembers seeing them) but unconsciously (he feels an emotional response that is fundamentally the same as when he saw them as a boy.)

I'm puzzling through this as I'm writing it, doing one of my usual hail-Mary close readings. Which is not very much of a close reading at all, as a real close reading of this bit of poetry would probably take several thousand words. As a result, I'm not quite sure what my original point was, though I think it was something along the lines of: we've been thinking about the effects of subliminal stimulation through the lens of poetry much longer than we have through the lens of science. So maybe, in order to understand it, we should be looking back instead of forward, at notebooks instead of computers, at long walks in open fields, at snow-capped mountains, at inch-worms.

I'm sure someone has written more articulately about this, has taken the time to make it into words that work with rather than against one another. I think a large part of my interest in it is rooted in my agnosticism--basically, my belief that the presence or non-presence of a deity or deities is unknown and unknowable. It doesn't mean I don't believe in God, or gods. It doesn't mean I believe, though, either. It means that my prayers aren't to anyone, and that the only reason that I call them "prayers" is that I'm not sure what else they could be.

And now that I have thoroughly scared you off with both the quoting of Wordsworth and the navel-gazing , I recommend fic! All That Mattered, by [livejournal.com profile] phase_of_gray. Interesting and convincing John-in-hell, a snippet that lets him keep his dignity and even get some snark in. I think I'm mostly interested in the portrayal of hell itself, as this place in which you constantly want for things that you can't get. It's a little straightforward for my tastes, but my tastes have been known to tend to the messy and obscure. Anyway, it's part of my project to expand my comfort zone, fic-wise, and read authors and styles I've never encountered before. Sometimes it makes my eyelids twitch, but sometimes I stumble on a gem. And I like shiny things.

ETA: My weather report currently informs me that there is DENSE FOG (omg!) outside. It's a beautiful night. There is no sign of fog anywhere I can see. I love my weather report.
I'm reading J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace right now. I rather like it so far; I'm not gripped by it, but I want to know what happens, and I'm willing enough to see it through. I've been having problems reading 'literary' novels recently, though, and I just figured out why.

It's the dialogue.

I am constantly annoyed by the dialogue.

It doesn't sound like people, and it distances me from the characters to the point where I'm no longer really interested in what's happening to them. I want to hear people saying things that don't make sense, interrupting each other, laughing at inappropriate junctures, using improper contractions and verb conjugations and sentence structure, repeating themselves, saying 'you know' and 'I mean,' mishearing one another, speaking in fragments, omitting personal pronouns.

I'm going to pull a line from the most recent SPN episode to illustrate my point, mostly because I have it in front of me as I'm writing this and am too lazy at the moment to track another example down. Anyway. Dean, at one point, says, "Listen, sister, that car didn't try to run you down by itself. Okay? I mean, I guess it did, technically, but, but the spirit can...forget it."

J. M. Coetzee would never write that line. Ever. Okay, so Dean's from Kansas, not Cape Town, and he's anything but literary. But he sounds like a person. He tries to explain something, picks the wrong phrase, interrupts himself, tries to correct himself, and then just gives up.

I don't know if I'm explaining this well. I've just been intensely frustrated by smooth, carefully crafted dialogue lately. It's not what life sounds like, and no matter how beautiful the prose, it doesn't reflect my world.

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May 2010

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