Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested: that is, some books are to be read only in parts, others to be read, but not curiously, and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.
READIN started out as a place for me
to keep track of what I am reading, and to learn (slowly, slowly)
how to design a web site.
There has been some mission drift
here and there, but in general that's still what it is. Some of
the main things I write about here are
listening to (and playing) music, and
watching the movies. Also I write about the
work I do with my hands and with my head; and of course about bringing up Sylvia.
The site is a bit of a work in progress. New features will come on-line now and then; and you will occasionally get error messages in place of the blog, for the forseeable future. Cut me some slack, I'm just doing it for fun! And if you see an error message you think I should know about, please drop me a line. READIN source code is PHP and CSS, and available on request, in case you want to see how it works.
I was meaning to ask, what lessons can I take from The Cave? It is very clearly written with a pedagogical slant; it seems to me like Saramago intends for me to apply it to my own life. And I want, instinctively, to do so.
But how? I guess I wouldn't say the lesson of Thelma & Louise is, running away and driving your car off a cliff is the appropriate response to an abusive relationship; but then I don't recall thinking of Thelma & Louise as a movie with a moral; and also an abusive relationship is not a problem that I have to deal with. Whereas here, it would be easy to say that the moral is, running away without plans, without regard for how you're going to support yourself or lead your life, is the appropriate response to alienation from the natural world caused by capitalistic expropriation of our experience of life, by the replacement of dreams with advertisements; and there is certainly room for the claim that this type of alienation is exactly the problem that I have to deal with. So where does that lead me except to running away, a solution that I've not found to be reliable in the past?
The answer, I think, is that I should not focus on the final chapter of the book so much -- that I should look at Cipriano's style of living throughout the book as worthy of emulation, and treat the conclusion as a promise that if I live my life with this sort of honor and self-respect, I'll find connection and happiness. Which is at least a worthwhile self-deception.
No amount of sweetness today can diminish the bitterness of tomorrow.
Saramago has been telegraphing the lesson of the book -- that the public who resign themselves to the easy, isolated world of The Center, who choose for themselves/allow to be chosen for them mass-produced plastic dinnerware over Cipriano Algor's pottery, are blinding themselves to the beauty of reality in the same way as Plato's troglodytes -- pretty clearly and strongly, beginning early in the book and getting quite explicit toward the end. And that's not even a particularly new point -- it would be difficult for me to come up with names of books where I've read this kind of thing before but it seems pretty commonplace to me. So in a way, the book should seem sort of like a train wreck, grinding inexorably toward a conclusion you already know.
And yet: somehow that is not at all what the experience of reading the book is like. It is not only beautifully written, it is also surprising for all you have a pretty good idea going in, what the general structure will be. When Cipriano says, "Those people are us," my impulse was to say "Well duh" -- but when he says a few sentences later, "You must decide what to do with your own lives, but I'm leaving," my reaction was one of palpable relief. Saramago has crafted his story well enough that I am included in its ups and downs almost despite myself.
I'm a little torn about the ending. It has a certain Thelma & Louise quality to it that feels like it might be less true to the characters than is the rest of the novel. I see Saramago called deeply pessimistic, and there is a lot of darkness in the world of his books; but this ending is so optimistic that I would call it romantic.* And, well, in a way I guess I'm grateful to him for that. I'm glad my memory of the novel will be of Cipriano's and Marta's and Marçal's rebellion from The Center, of Cipriano's and Isaura's tears of reunion rather than of Cipriano's bleak, lonely tears. I'm not sure how this affects the philosophical message of the book though -- if the only way you can rebel from The Center is to turn to romantic fancy, how much real hope is there?
* The ending of Blindness is also, certainly, hugely optimistic; but the darkness of Seeing keeps me from thinking of the first book as romantic.
It is not worth describing what Cipriano Algor thought about because he had thought it on so many other occasions and we have supplied more than enough information on the subject already. The only new thing here is that he allowed a few painful tears to run down his cheeks, tears that had been dammed up for a long, long time, always just about to be shed, but, as it turned out, they were being reserved for this sad hour, for this moonless night, for this solitude that has not yet resigned itself to being solitude. What was truly not a novelty, because it had happened before in the history of fables and in the history of the marvels of the canine race, was that Found went over to Cipriano Algor to lick his tears, a gesture of supreme consolation which, however touching it might seem to us, capable of touching hearts normally not given to displays of emotion, should not make us forget the crude reality that the salty taste of tears is greatly appreciated by most dogs. One thing, however, does not detract from the other, were we to ask Found if it was because of the salt that he licked Cipriano Algor's face, he would probably have replied that we do not deserve the bread that we eat, that we are incapable of seeing beyond the end of our own nose.
A dog licking tears from the face of a crying human is a central image in Saramago's work, as much as I've read of it so far anyway. And it is touching -- the other times I've read sequences like this, they have touched me as symbolizing the depth of connection between the dog and his master. But another way of looking at it that is occurring to me now, is how painfully lonely, to be weeping in a place where there is no other person present.
(The clause after "truly not a novelty" strikes me as funny in a sort of self-referential way -- it could be rendered, "What was truly not a novelty, because it had happened before in books I have written,...")
Coincidence: the two times this year I have gone to the beach, I've taken along a book by Saramago -- he works really well for a relaxed read, lying in the sun. I'm not sure what it is exactly -- he's very "heavy" -- it takes a lot of thinking and re-thinking for me to get it. But the sun and the sand seem to help that along.
A couple of nice bits from this weekend's reading, below the fold:
...It would help to clear my head too, so why don't we both go and pick Marçal up, and Found can stay here to guard the castle, If that's what you want, Don't be silly, I was just kidding, you usually go and fetch Marçal and I usually stay at home, so long live usually, No, seriously, we can both go, No, seriously, you go. They both smiled, and the debate on the central question, that is, the objective and subjective reasons we usually do what we do, was postponed.
Indeed, whether we mix water and clay, or water and plaster, or water and cement, we can cudgel our brains for as long as we like to come up with a name that is less vulgar, less prosaic, less common, but always, sooner or later, we come back to the word, the word that says all there is to say, mud. Many of the best-known gods chose mud as the material for their creations, but it is hard to know now if that preference represents a point in mud's favor or a point against.
We have already mentioned the fact that many anthropogenic myths made use of clay in the creation of man, and anyone moderately interested in the subject can find out more in know-it-all almanacs and know-it-almost-all encyclopedias.... There is, however, one case, at least one, in which the clay had to be fired in the kiln for the work to be considered finished. And then only after various attempts. This singular creator, whose name we forget, probably did not know about or did not have sufficient confidence in the thaumaturgic efficacy of blowing air into the nostrils as another creator did before or would do later, indeed, as Cipriano Algor did in our own time, although with the very modest intention of cleaning the ashes from the face of the nurse.
I might just as well drive the van into a wall, he thought. He wondered why he didn't do so and why he probably never would, then he listed his reasons. Although inappropriate in the context of his analysis, after all, being alive is, at least in principle, the main reason why people kill themselves, the first of Cipriano Algor's strong reasons for not doing so was the fact of being alive...
Also -- I got a chance to read some passages to Sylvia, mainly involving the adoption of Found by Cipriano and his daughter, and she seemed really into it. Sylvia thinks Found is better behaved than Pixie.
When I was just getting started on Blindness, I wrote that Saramago's style of rendering dialog was "dismissive," and threatened to make his characters "sound like automata." I don't think that was exactly right (although it may have accurately described my impression at the time) -- based on how completely human his characters seem to me. But I want to pick at this for a bit and figure out what is my impression of Saramago's dialog -- it has certainly struck me as one of the most important aspects of his novels.
Allow me to quote some portions of a conversation between Marta and her husband, Marçal, about Marçal's parents wanting to come live with them. Sorry about the ellipses, the passage is too long to quote in full:
What's wrong, asked Marta, suddenly uncertain, Nothing important, just a few niggling little problems, At work, No, What then, We have so little time together and yet they still won't leave us alone, We don't live in a bell jar, I dropped in at my parents' house, Did something happen, some complication. Marçal shook his head and went on... I said that we were intending having your father to live with us when we moved..., You told them that, Yes, but they took no notice, they practically started yelling at me and crying, well, my mother did, my father's not really the sloppy type, he just protested and waved his arms around a lot, what kind of a son am I, putting the interests of people who aren't of the same blood over the needs of my own progenitors, they actually used the word progenitors, heaven knows where they found it..., And that was the final word, To be honest, I don't know if it was or not, I've probably forgotten a few others, but they were all out of the same mold. ...Marçal said, I know a son shouldn't say things like this, but the fact is I don't want to live with my parents, Why, We've never understood each other, I've never understood them and they've never understood me, They're your parents, Yes, they're my parents, and on one particular night, they went to bed, happened to be in the mood, and I was the result... Marta took Marçal's left hand, held it in hers, and murmured, All fathers were sons once, many sons become fathers, but some forget what they were and no one can explain to the others what they will become, That's a bit deep, Oh, I don't understand it myself really, it just came to me, pay no attention, Let's go to bed, All right. They got undressed and lay down. The moment for caresses came back into the room and apologized for having spent so much time outside, I got lost, it said, by way of an excuse, and suddenly, as sometimes happens with moments, it became eternal. A quarter of an hour later, their bodies still entwined, Marta said softly, Marçal, What is it, he asked sleepily, I'm two days late.
What is it? -- It seems to me the dialog has a certain fuzzy quality, you are constantly reminded that it is the narrator who is speaking, not the characters. But you get the impression that he is a faithful and a sympathetic narrator, that his paraphrase captures accurately the rhythm of language as spoken and heard by his subjects. In most novels, dialog serves in part to crystallize the scene, to bring sharply into focus what is happening and whom it's happening to; the dynamic in Saramago's novels is kind of the opposite -- dialog pulls the lens back and mutes the focus. You identify with the characters but with the understanding that you are identifying with the narrator's descriptions of them, and thus with the narrator.
Yesterday I was browsing around the webs for reactions to The Cave, and found this lovely essay by Scott Esposito. Turns out it's part of Esposito's blog Conversational Reading, which appears to be composed exclusively of well-written, well-reasoned reflections on literature and on Esposito's current reading. A-and that's not all! He also edits a web zine called The Quarterly Conversation. Current issue has (among other good things) a review of Vonnegut's posthumous collection Armageddon in Retrospect and an essay about Macedonio Fernández, mentor to Borges.
...And no sooner do I post about how glad I am to see the dog in this story, than I read a chapter narrated mostly from Found's point of view. It is very sweetly done, too.
Doubtless because he was still green in years, Found had not yet had time to gain clear, definitive, formed opinions on the importance or meaning of tears in the human being, however, considering that these liquid humors are frequently manifest in the strange soup of sentiment, reason and cruelty of which the said human being is made, he thought it might not be such a grave mistake to go over to his weeping mistress and gently place his head on her knees. ...From this moment on, Marta will love the dog Found as much as we know Cipriano already loves him.
Just a note: I'm so happy to see there is a dog as one of the characters in The Cave: the Dog of Tears was a huge piece of Blindness and of Seeing, and I'm glad to see Saramago including a dog in his cast here as well.