Wednesday, 22 April 2020

A time to every purpose

I have been writing this post mentally for quite a while, long before the current situation, but it feels more relevant now than ever. I have been reluctant to share my reflections because I might sound self-righteous, and I am also aware that I am exceptionally privileged, since in my retirement I have no obligations, I have stable economy, good health and other benefits many people are denied. And yet I am disturbed by what I hear and read these days about frustration and boredom; all kinds of highly contradictory statements. Some people say time has stopped, some that it has expanded beyond reason; some don't know what to do with their time; some feel the “before” was centuries ago, some look in horror at just a few weeks back; some see no future, some cannot wait for future to arrive.

I have written a book about time in children's literature. After twenty years, I still think it is the best book I have written, unjustly not having received as much attention as it should have. In this book, I explore the use of circular, mythic time in classic children's books and the ways this archaic time – kairos – occasionally opens into linearity, chronos. But kairos is not simply here and now; it's vast, it includes all past down to the beginning of time and it stretches into the future to the end of time and beyond. It is recurrent in changes of seasons, in death and rebirth. It includes all parallel worlds, beliefs and imaginings. Australian Aborigines' concept of Dreamtime is one of the closest ways of grasping it, although it is hard for us, Westerners, to understand, because we are conditioned to value linear, measurable, goal-oriented time; we are told that the so-called carefree time of childhood is something to leave behind and grow up and start living according to clocks, calendars, schedules, timetables, and achievements. This is what children's literature endeavours to prepare us for. Yes, the little boy and his teddy bear will always be playing in the Hundred-Acre Wood, and yet we know that the boy is going away to boarding school, where he will be introduced to spelling, multiplication tables and citizenship. This is inevitable, but all great children's books remind us of kairos, of the “very long time ago, maybe last Friday”. Of the time of always, usually, habitually, every Sunday, every summer. Some languages have tenses and modalities to express this iterativity.

What no literature, children's or other, has prepared me for, is return to kairos in old age. I am not sure whether the rapidly expanding academic area of age studies has paid attention to this phenomenon. And I don't remember any work of fiction that describes it. There are of course numerous stories about old people, but usually with negative connotations, focusing on illness, loneliness, disappointment, fear of death. I cannot think of any story that highlights the pleasures of getting old. Maybe because halcyon old age doesn't constitute a good plot. It isn't as exciting as opening up childhood idyll into constant linear advancement, nor promising the vague, even if encouraging happily-ever-after. But as people of my age know, there is more after happily-ever-after. Once our linear progression slows down and eventually stops, we don't die yet. Instead, at least some of us are blessed with returning into Dreamtime, to the all-encompassing Grand Time we lost when we decided or were forced to grow up.

They say that senescence is the second childhood, but it is not true. As Clémentine Beauvais demonstrates in her research, a child is mighty because of their vast resources of time-left, time-yet-to-spend. An old person, returning to kairos after a life of stressful, competitive linearity, has limited time-left. I don't know exactly how much time I have left, but statistically it is significantly less than I had when I was a child. Yet this is only true if we think in linear, goal-oriented terms. If kairos has no beginning or end, if it has no structure, then it makes no sense to measure it the way we measure linear time. I don't have any deadlines or goals. I may still want to walk a thousand kilometers by the end of 2020 or climb to the height of Everest adding up my daily climbs; I may want to build another dollhouse or harvest tomatoes on my balcony. Yet these are desires, not goals. I have left all anxieties of my adult life behind (and yes, once again, I am aware of being exceptionally privileged). Like a very young (privileged) child, I don't have to worry where my next meal comes from. I am my own master, and unless I want them, I have no societal constraints, no rules to play by. I have got rid of as many possessions as I could; when you don't owe much you don't worry about losing it. Like in childhood, procreation is not an issue. I have no fear of death, because, although I hope to live a few more years, death will not rob me of my life, long and on the whole quite satisfactory. While a young child is not yet aware of their own mortality, I have come to terms with it and thus become immortal. My present life is a life of total harmony. A life in Arcadia. A life in kairos.

This is where the current situation comes in, and this is where I am running a risk of sounding sanctimonious. I feel leaving chronos behind is a relief. I still need to keep track of days to know when my groceries delivery is coming, and I need to know when the live-streamed concert starts, but apart from that days are determined by sunrise and sunset, meal time is when I am hungry and bedtime is when I am tired. In between there are so many exciting things to fill my days, and every day is Sunday, and it is always summer. Unlike childhood, there is nothing I must learn because it will be useful later in life. I can gather totally useless knowledge and acquire totally useless skills. I can “waste time” because I have unlimited supply of it. I have the peace of mind to feel joy about everything I do, everything I see, hear, touch, smell. I do not look back with nostalgia or regrets at my past. I do not look with hope into the future. I do not feel anxious about the future either. I am not longing for anything, least of all any return to my previous lifestyle. I enjoy being away from civilisation and close to nature. And of course remoteness and isolation are the very tokens of kairos.

All this happened to me before everyone's lives changed so dramatically. Therefore I believe I am so much better prepared for the current situation. I don't want to preach, just to share my experience. Even if you still have your commitments, stop and reflect. This is the opportunity to capture a few moments of kairos, if only to realise that it is there for you when you feel you have completed your linear, measurable, goal-oriented existence. Don't misunderstand me: I used to live that hectic life myself. We are trained to in our society. Returning to kairos involved a lot of effort and determination, but it was worth the trouble. Your voluntary or involuntary isolation is a valuable, albeit temporary escape from linearity, but not a nostalgic escape to prelapsarian childhood – you still have your adult responsibilities, and you can never shed your adult knowledge and experience; neither a blind-folded sideways escape to idyllic fantasy from which you return no wiser. It is a glimpse of the reward to come – if you let it come, if you don't lament the “waste of time”, the days and weeks and months stolen from you, but see them as days, weeks and months gifted to you as a password to kairos when your are ready. To everything there is a time and a season. A time to rush, and a time to pause.

 Ill. Kate Greenaway 

Saturday, 18 April 2020

Re-Reading A Handful of Dust

A Handful of Dust was my random choice for 2020 re-reading challenge out of many novels by Evelyn Waugh, although I probably read more of them than my friends, and definitely more than my parents and their friends, because I could read them in English. Inexplicably, Waugh's novels in paperback were sold among a handful – no pun intended – English-language books in a major bookstore in Moscow. The price was 5 or 6 rubles – my salary was 100 rubles (for comparison: a kilo beef was 2 rubles; a pair of tights was 10 rubles). I bought as many books as were available, maybe spending a month's salary. That's what you did. The reason those paperbacks made their way into Russia was that a couple of Waugh's novels had been translated into Russian, including A Handful of Dust. In a handbook of British literature, written by an esteemed Russian scholar, Waugh was presented as ultra-reactionary, so it is surprising he was translated at all, but there was never any logic behind what was or wasn't acceptable.

I remembered merely one detail from the book, which I also believed happened in a totally different book. A young boy is learning to ride a pony and gets kicked off. His coach tells him it happened because he ”opened his bloody legs and cut an arser”. The boy dutifully reports this to his parents. This was the first time a rude word was published in a Russian book, and my father was delighted. He read it outloud for my mother and me, and later to several guests. Maybe this is why I remembered this particular episode, because I didn't remember anything else, and it didn't come back as I was reading. So I can almost say I had never read this book before.

It is one of those books where all characters are repulsive, but unlike many books with repulsive characters I was curious about them and wanted to get to know them better. Against all my convictions as a reader, I wished I could warn them: Don't be a fool, stop doing this! I wished I could change their destinies.

My scholarly self prompts that Waugh's sarcastic writing goes back to Jane Austen, although he would probably deny it. Anyway, the book is brilliantly written, and I may re-read it again soon. Warmly recommended.


Thursday, 16 April 2020

Re-reading The Little Lady of the Big House

I have included this, frankly, mediocre and unremarkable novel in my re-reading challenge because for some reason it was exceptionally significant for me and my friends, and also my parents' generation knew it well. Jack London was a popular author in Russia, maybe the most popular American author after Mark Twain. We had his collected works in 10 volumes in my childhood home. I wonder why he was acceptable for the Soviet regime, probably because of his socialist views and support of working class movement. Martin Eden, a Künstlerroman featuring a protagonist with a working class background, was introduced officially as his best work. I don't think I ever read it (anything officially introduced as good was perceived as bad). We read The Call of the Wild and White Fang, but they were never my favourites, because there were other, more powerful animal stories I liked. We were greatly fascinated by The Star Rover, an early sci-fi novel, and my father's favourite was John Barleycorn, an autobiography focused on alcoholism.

But why The Little Lady? In my case, I was so obsessed by the novel that I would cast people in my surroundings as the characters, and this was probably the closest I ever came to having a crush on a literary character. The reason, as with so many other books from the same stage of our lives, was love. The love triangle in the novel was the attraction, and the tragic outcome only amplified it. Remember, we were not familiar with romance, not with with any kind of trash, but particularly not romance since it had nothing to contribute to the formation of the new socialist citizen. Therefore any book - or movie – with any kind of romantic plot worked as a substitute for mass-market romance.

As with most books on my re-reading list, I had rather vague memories of my once great favourite that I certainly read over and over again, first time probably when I was thirteen. I remembered some key scenes, I remembered there was a lot of horseback riding. Some details came back as I was reading, others didn't ring a bell. What I had completely forgotten, most likely because I didn't pay attention to it before, was the extensive focus on Dick's agricultural projects. Actually, the title character does not appear in the first quarter of the novel. However, Dick's fixation on his business provides an essential background to the central conflict, whether intentionally or not. Every time Paula comes in visit her husband in his office, he is in a hurry, looking sideways at his spreadsheets while she is trying to catch his attention. They have separate quarters and meet at lunch and dinner, seldom on their own as the house is always full of guests. Their marriage is explicitly presented as happy, while it is quite clear that it is a disaster, which makes Paula's fascination with handsome, exciting Graham much more plausible. Her dilemma is not between two men she loves – even though she says so – but between love and duty. Dick himself admits that she never loved him the way she loves Graham. A detail I had completely forgotten was that Dick eventually decides to commit suicide, staging it as an accident, so that Paula is spared the choice. Hearing a gunshot, he says: “She beat me to it”.

It was illuminating, once again, to consider what might have been attractive about this book fifty years ago when I clearly see that at least half of it would be of no interest to a seventeen-year-old, at least not the seventeen-year-old me. The more I re-read, the more I wonder whether I used to skim-read, slowing down at more “interesting” passages (read, “about love”) because some I remember by heart.

I started by stating that The Little Lady was a mediocre novel, and I stand by this judgement. The plot is trivial and not really convincing, the characters are flat (the external descriptions are so stereotypical you could puke), there is a lot of political and philosophical discussions among secondary characters, that feel pointless. The writing is not particularly good. Still, I am glad I re-read the book so that I am now rid of the distorted image I had from my youth. I would not recommend anyone to read it. If you want romance, there are so many other books that do not pretend to be anything other than romance. 


Thursday, 2 April 2020

Re-reading 2001: A Space Odyssey

I wouldn't call myself a voracious science-fiction reader, but I was obsessed with space since I was a young child, wanted to be an astronomer and until certain age firmly believed that I would one day travel to Mars and Saturn and beyond. Asimov, Bradbury and Clarke were my house gods, and not only mine – they were highly regarded among my friends and my parents' friends. I never saw the movie until I came to Sweden, so my memory of 50 years ago is of the book alone.

Even today there are certain images and verbal passages describing deep space that give me the creeps. Maybe it's true about everyone – it's just too overwhelming. I remember reading the chapter in which Bowman is falling through the shaft, me feeling nauseated and intoxicated at the same time. Otherwise, as with most books on my re-reading list, I did not remember much. I did not remember the first, lengthy part in pre-historic time that is so marvellously transposed into screen. I must say, it didn't quite work for me now, narratively, but not to the degree I was disturbed by it. It was the same with later chapters told from the point of view of the superior aliens that had planted the monoliths on Earth, Moon and Japetus. The omniscience of the narrator was a bit problematic for me as a professional reader. I am sure I didn't notice it back then.

I believe that we are all highly affected by the movie and cannot “unwatch” it, therefore my memory of Hal the computer was that he – it – was an evil rebel, malicious AI in conflict with humanity. It has been a while since I saw the movie but as I remember this is the way Hal is portrayed in the film. In the book, he – yes, I will refer to Hal as he – is presented as a more ethical being than the humans. He has a moral dilemma because he has been programmed to lie to the crew about the true nature of the mission. But he also needs to complete the mission, and the imperfect and mendacious humans are in the way. I fully empathised with Hal and felt unhappy that he had to be destroyed. He was only doing his duty.

The detailed description of Bowman's isolation resonates in a weird way today. And I wasn't at all disturbed by outdated details, as I know I might have been with a less engaging story. I started reading with apprehension: what if the book felt hopelessly obsolete? It didn't.

And I wonder whether Clarke had read The Magician's Nephew and referred to it, consciously or subconsciously, in the depiction of interstellar Grand Central Station.

Now I want to re-watch the movie.