Not all of them can hear the howling in the same way you do, some of them think it sounds like a picnic out there in the wilderness

Having re-read Margaret Atwood’s book of ‘fictional essays’ The Tent, I was particularly struck by the eponymous essay ‘The Tent’, which I have reproduced below. Even though it was published over ten years ago, it seemed particularly fitting during these early days of the presidency of Donald Trump.

The Tent

You’re in a tent. It’s vast and cold outside, very vast, very cold. It’s a howling wilderness. There are rocks in it, and ice and sand, and deep boggy pits you could sink into without a trace. There are ruins as well, many ruins; in and around the ruins there are broken musical instru­ments, old bathtubs, bones of extinct land mammals, shoes minus their feet, auto parts. There are thorny shrubs, gnarled trees, high winds. But you have a small candle in your tent. You can keep warm.

Many things are howling out there, in the howling wilderness. Many people are howling. Some howl in grief because those they love have died or been killed, others howl in triumph because they have caused the loved ones of their enemies to die or be killed. Some howl to summon help, some howl for revenge, others howl for blood. The noise is deafening.

It’s also frightening. Some of the howling is coming close to you, in your tent, where you crouch in silence, hoping you won’t be seen. You’re frightened for your­self, but especially for those you love. You want to protect them. You want to gather them inside your tent, for protection.

Margaret Atwood, The Tent

Margaret Atwood, The Tent

The trouble is, your tent is made of paper. Paper won’t keep anything out. You know you must write on the walls, on the paper walls, on the inside of your tent. You must write upside down and backwards, you must cover every available space on the paper with writing. Some of the writing has to describe the howling that’s going on outside, night and day, among the sand dunes and the ice chunks and the ruins and bones and so forth; it must tell the truth about the howling, but this is diffi­cult to do because you can’t see through the paper walls and so you can’t be exact about the truth, and you don’t want to go out there, out into the wilderness, to see exactly for yourself. Some of the writing has to be about your loved ones and the need you feel to protect them, and this is difficult as well because not all of them can hear the howling in the same way you do, some of them think it sounds like a picnic out there in the wilderness, like a big band, like a hot beach party, they resent being cooped up in such a cramped space with you and your small candle and your fearfulness and your annoying obsession with calligraphy, an obsession that makes no sense to them, and they keep trying to scramble out under the walls of the tent.

This doesn’t stop you from your writing. You write as if your life depended on it, your life and theirs. You inscribe in shorthand their natures, their features, their habits, their histories; you change the names, of course, because you don’t want to create evidence, you don’t want to attract the wrong sort of attention to these loved ones of yours, some of whom – you’re now discov­ering – are not people at all, but cities and landscapes, towns and lakes and clothing you used to wear and neighbourhood cafés and long-lost dogs. You don’t want to attract the howlers, but they’re attracted anyway, as if by a scent: the walls of the paper tent are so thin that they can see the light of your candle, they can see your outline, and naturally they’re curious because you might be prey, you might be something they can kill and then howl over in celebration and then eat, one way or another. You’re too conspicuous, you’ve made yourself conspicuous, you’ve given yourself away. They’re coming closer, gathering together; they’re taking time off from their howling to peer, to sniff around.

Why do you think this writing of yours, this graphomania in a flimsy cave, this scribbling back and forth and up and down over the walls of what is beginning to seem like a prison, is capable of protecting anyone at all? Yourself included. It’s an illusion, the belief that your doodling is a kind of armour, a kind of charm, because no one knows better than you do how fragile your tent really is. Already there’s a clomping of leather-covered feet, there’s a scratching, there’s a scrabbling, there’s a sound of rasping breath. Wind comes in, your candle tips over and flares up, and a loose tent-flap catches fire, and through the widening black-edged gap you can see the eyes of the howlers, red and shining in the light from your burning paper shelter, but you keep on writing anyway because what else can you do?

Crocodiles optional?

… the only hammer in the house belongs to Tony, and for anything other than simple nail-pounding she looks in the Yellow Pages. Why risk your life? … She has never seen the point of lawns. Given the choice she’d prefer a moat, with a drawbridge, and crocodiles optional.

No deep wisdom here perhaps, but I can relate to these lines from Margaret Atwood’s novel The Robber Bride. There are days though when crocodiles are a must!

The Great Chain of Being à la Auntie Muriel

Some lines from Margaret Atwood’s novel Life before Man:

Auntie Muriel is unambiguous about most things. Her few moments of hesitation have to do with members of her own family. She isn’t sure where they fit into the Great Chain of Being She’s quite certain of her own place, however. First comes God. Then comes Auntie Muriel and the Queen, with Auntie Muriel having a slight edge. Then come about five members of the Timothy Eaton Memorial Church, which Auntie Muriel attends. After this there is a large gap. Then white, non-Jewish Canadians, Englishmen, and white, non-Jewish Americans, in that order. Then there’s another large gap, followed by all other human beings on a descending scale, graded according to skin color and religion. Then cockroaches, clothes moths, silverfish and germs, which are about the only forms of animal life with which Auntie Muriel has ever had any contact. Then all sexual organs, except those of flowers.

[…]

There are no shades of grey for Auntie Muriel. Her only visible moral dilemma is that she thinks she ought to rank her family with the Timothy Eaton Church members, because of their relation to her; but she feels compelled to place them instead with the cockroaches and silverfish, because of their deplorable behavior.

No one would take him for a clergyman

Two thoughts from E. M. Forster’s A Room with a View

… one a profound comment by the narrrator:

The armour of falsehood is subtly wrought out of darkness, and hides a man not only from others, but from his own soul.

… and one, spoken by Lucy, a little disturbing:

He seems to see the good in everyone. No one would take him for a clergyman.

.

Where to put one’s gratitude

Zadie Smith’s On Beauty did never quite engage me in the way that I had expected, but here are what for me were the book’s three highlights:

… poetry is the first mark of the truly civilized.

And so it happened again, the daily miracle whereby interiority opens out and brings to bloom the million-petalled flower of being here, in the world, with other people.

It’s like he knows he’s blessed, but he doesn’t know where to put his gratitude because that makes him uncomfortable, because that would be dealing in transcendence – and we all know how he hates to do that. So by denying there are any gifts in the world, any essentially valuable things – that’s how he shortcircuits the gratitude question. If there are no gifts, then he doesn’t have to think about a God who might have given them. But that’s where joy is. I’m on my knees to God every day.

In the last quote it is the book’s male hero’s teenage son speaking and displaying far more wisdom than his father ever manages. There is such profound truth in the equation of gratitude and joy. Being grateful to God – that indeed is where true joy is.

Cynicism and trust

While cynicism is no less reasonable than trust, the latter is much more enjoyable and life affirming.

Thus Jo Carruthers in a review of Javier Marías’s novel The Infatuations. While it seems obvious to me that trust is always the better option and is indeed more life-affirming than fear or cynicism, I love the idea that it is also more enjoyable. I had never looked at it from that angle, I suppose, but it’s true.

The review, which appeared in Third Way, June 2013, has also whetted my appetite for the novel, which is said to explore existential questions of life, death, love and morality. It looks a fascinating read.

The story held you together

Some random thoughts from Mark Haddon’s The Red House. They spoke to me for a variety of reasons, I suppose.

The beauty kept slipping through her fingers. The world was so far away and the mind kept saying, Me, me, me. … But the valley … wasn’t this amazing? Look, you had to say to yourself, Look.

A failure to engage properly with the world. … Nothing mattered enough.

He occupies, still, a little circle of attention, no more than eight metres in diameter at most. If stuff happens beyond this perimeter he simply doesn’t notice unless it involves explosions or his name being yelled angrily. At home, in school, on the streets between and around the two, the world is constantly catching him by surprise, teachers, older boys, drunk people on the street all suddenly appearing in front of him so that his most-used facial expression is one of puzzled shock.

He had always seen his self-sufficiency as an admirable quality, a way of not imposing upon other people, but he could see now that it was an insult to those close to you.

It was the story that mattered, the story that held you together …. Saying, This happenedThen that happened … Saying This is me. But what is her story? Losing the plot. The deep truths hidden in the throw-away phrase.