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?

You opened the door to another world for me

imageedit_1_6541196834Some thoughts from André Gorz’s book Letter to D: A Love Story.

On love and life together:

I understood that pleasure is not something you give or take. It’s a way of giving yourself and calling forth the gift of self from the other person.

What captivated me about you was that you opened the door to another world for me.

You gave all of yourself to help me become myself.

You opened up the richness of life for me and I loved life through you – unless it was the reverse and I loved you through all living things (but that comes down to the same thing).

It’s fairly safe to say I probably haven’t lived up to the resolution I made 30 years ago: to live completely at one with the present, mindful above all of the wealth of our shared life.

On finitude:

You have to accept being finite: being here and nowhere else, doing this and not something else, now and not always or never … having only this life.

On writing:

… you knew that a person who wanted to be a writer needs to be able to shut themselves away in seclusion, to make notes at any hour of the day or night; that their work with language goes on well after they’ve laid down their pen and can take complete possession of them without warning, in the middle of a meal or a conversation.

‘When everything’s said, everything remains to be said, everything always remains to be said’. In other words: it’s the saying that matters, not the said. What I’d written interested me a lot less than what I might write next.

On theory:

… theory always runs the risk of blinding us to the shifting complexities of the real world.

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On beauty and writing

These thoughts by Elisabeth Pike on beauty and writing resonated with me. They’re from an article entitled ‘Space to create’, which appeared in Third Way, April 2014.

I have heard it said that writing is as much about staring at the empty page as it is about writing. I love that. It takes the pressure off; it gives permission to dream. As Nabokov said in Lectures on Literature, the words will arrive when they are ready: ‘the pages are still blank, but there is a miraculous feeling of the words being there, written in invisible ink and clamouring to become visible.’

Pike then quotes some lines from Virginia Woolf’s In a Room of One’s Own on idling and comments:

To idle! Did you hear that? There is always beauty to be found, whether we are at home looking after toddlers, or paying the rent with a day job.

And again:

The beauty is always there … you just have to take the time, open your eyes and perceive it.

And she quotes from Raymond Carver’s essay ‘On Writing’, published in Fires:

A writer sometimes needs to be able to stand and gape at this or that thing – a sunset or an old shoe – in absolute and simple amazement.

This, as Pike concludes, is what it’s about:

To live, to see, to idle, to communicate wonder!

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Of bikes, poems in the dark and sex strikes

Fifty Shades of Feminism, edited by Lisa Appignanesi, Rachel Holmes and Susie Orbach, proves to be a fascinating collection of fifty brief reflections by an intriguing mix of voices: poets and novelists, politicians and social activists, journalists and physicians …. It also features women from a variety of cultural and racial backgrounds.

The contributions are, as I said, brief. Fifty chapters in about 300 pages, that does not leave much room for the individual authors to express their thoughts and reflections. And yet, in the first 100 pages (which is as far as I have got) I have already come across a few thought-provoking observations and some moving and also sometimes shocking stories.

Nathalie Handal, for instance, mentions her Lebanese grandmother, who rode a bike at a time when, unimaginably for us, it was considered a sin for women to do so. And she reports this story from Afghanistan:

Nadia’s son joined the Taliban. Her daughter wrote. Every evening, she would wake up in the middle of the night to write poems in the dark so as not to raise any suspicion of her audacity – a woman writing. When she finished, she would go to the window and like magic see her lines perfectly straight on every page. She hid them under the mattress. The day they found out her brother was killed, her father, in rage and in grief, shook his daughter’s bed and the pages spread across the floor like a testament challenging fate. He beat his daughter to death. Nadia did not say anything to her husband, she knelt by her daughter’s body, held her tight, went to the window where her daughter once read her verses, and fell.

Handal goes on to reflect on the need of women, in every culture, no matter what the nature of their oppression, to be brave and take the responsibility to define themselves.

She also notes that ‘men wage war when they lack imagination’ and that, ‘without the evolution of women, no society can evolve’. And she points out that Nadia’s quietness in that story from Afghanistan ‘was not silence but an assertion, I will not lie any more’.

Handal’s chapter is followed, rather fittingly, by Natalie Haynes writing about ‘Sex, Feminism and the Ancient World’. It’s a fitting sequel, because Haynes talks about Aristophanes’ play Lysistrata, in which the women of Greece, having got fed up with their warmongering men, decide to hold a sex strike. They will not make love as long as the men keep making war. Does the strategy work? The play being well-known, we all know the answer. But even if we didn’t, it would always be a foregone conclusion. There are some tactics that cannot fail.

And Handal is absolutely right to suggest that, ‘without the evolution of women, no society can evolve’.

Bloodstains, teethmarks, gashes and burns

Some reflections on the arduous nature of the writing process:

On plenty of days the writer can write three or four pages, and on plenty of other days he concludes he must throw them away.

Even when passages seemed to come easily, as though I were copying from a folio held open by smiling angels, the manuscript revealed the usual signs of struggle – bloodstains, teethmarks, gashes, and burns.

(from Annie Dillard, The Writing Life)

In my experience, smiling angels are a rare occurrence; the bloodstains etc. I can relate to only too well.