Tuesday, December 16

Deck Them Halls and All That Stuff

More things we like

As the darkness lingers longer into the morning and falls earlier every evening, I look forward to the holidays. On Hallowe'en, we revel in the darkness. On Thanksgiving, we find comfort in mashed food and pie. And for Christmas, we (those of us who celebrate it) spangle the darkness with lights and song ... and by the time December 25 arrives, the solstice has passed; so though January and February may be dreary, we can at least find solace in the lengthening days.

Much as I love Christmas, hell is other people's Christmas music. Nevertheless, I would like to share my favorite Christmas CDs. But I won't make you listen if you don't want to. I promise.
And it's snowing in Brooklyn!

Thursday, December 11

Abject Things, Part 2

And now, a confession. In truth, my stated project of "considering the relationship between works of imagination and reality, specifically what literature has to say, if anything, about how we should live" may be entirely a defensive act. I love to read, and I want to believe that reading is good. True, perhaps the pleasure of reading could in itself be an argument in favor of reading, except that there are those (the author of this recent book, for example) who would argue that reading does harm to the reader. Also, reading has often been presented as a form of escapism, while as a student of Zen I am committed to living in accord with reality, insofar as I am able to perceive it.

Clearly, given his desire to incorporate "abject moments and moments of spillage" in his work, Aleksandar Hemon is not interested in literature as a vehicle for escapism. And, with his vivid perception and idiosyncratic language, his voice seduces me, and I am able to tolerate stories about experiences that in reality are intolerable either to live or to consider. In our culture, we are encouraged to turn inward and tend to our own little gardens, investing our best energy in ensuring that we look and feel good and that our homes are beautiful and comfortably arranged. Such stories as Hemon's, by calling attention to the suffering of others, puncture the fantasy that by tending to my garden I can shelter myself from the possibility of difficulties or sorrow.

So, given that I cannot actually wish away the abject things of the world, what do I do about my knowledge of the suffering of others? It may be that the knowledge in itself is transformative. Since reading Reading Lolita in Tehran, for example, I've been interested in the connection between reading fiction and empathy, an idea with a history longer than I had realized. In fact, it has even been argued that "novels spread human rights and discourage torture."

Monday, December 8

All Abject Things in the World

To say that I've gone back to work would be misleading for two reasons. One, as a freelancer I generally, though not always, work from home, so I haven't actually gone anywhere. Two, I did some paid work in October, which probably wasn't a great idea (the Critter was born mid-September), but it turns out we do need the money I earned then. Anyway. I'm working again—very, very part time—and trying to figure out how to be a work-from-home mom without neglecting the Critter, my clients, or myself. I've hired no child care (yet?), so it's been challenging, but not too, too bad. However, as you may have noticed, I haven't been able to write any new posts, including one I had planned to post on Thanksgiving. Also, I haven't been reading much these days.

But I have been reading some. I'm a student at the Writers Studio, so in the weeks since the Critter was born I've been doing my best to keep up with the Craft Class. One recent assignment, The Question of Bruno, by Aleksandar Hemon, has disturbed my peace.

Hemon grew up in Sarajevo, and in his inventive stories, Eastern European history, family history, and personal history are inalienably entwined. In vivid, idiosyncratic language, the stories portray, among other things, life in Stalin's camps, the siege of Sarajevo, and the isolation of a Bosnian immigrant in Chicago. "Don't torture the boy with these stories. He won't be able to sleep ever again," says the mother of the nine-year-old narrator in one story. "No, let him hear, he should know," replies the narrator's Uncle Julius. Perhaps, indeed, I too should know ... but I certainly do not want to know about children sent to Stalin's camps for the mere crime of truancy, for example. I do not want to know about Sniper Alley in Sarajevo, or the body left rotting in a bedroom because it is too dangerous to take it outside for a proper burial.

In an interview, Hemon has spoken against the tendency toward the "purification of life, including your own body" in both memory and fiction. "It becomes this clean, controllable object," he says. "All abject things about it, and by extension all abject things in the world, are presumably not supposed to be there. But if you want to remember the world, it's hard to do it without abject things."

I admit my guilt! I most certainly wish away the abject things of the world, especially from human nature! But wishing things away, of course, does not make them go away....