20 November 2014

There are days

I suppose I should begin by explaining the mundane insight of my title: there are days. Obviously there are days, and just as obviously there are weeks, and it follows that there may be months which leads to the outrageous proposition that there may be such a thing as years. But this mundane insight is made more complete by the additional observation that there are days, and then there are days.

That there are days should come as a surprise to no one who has had a day, but that there are days is a fact unknown to anyone who has not experienced such a thing. And it seems the sad condition of our time that many, if not most people, fall into the latter category.

I came upon this train of thinking whilst reading a short essay cum book review by a young lady over at Welcome to Arhyalon. The young lady, who is all of sixteen years old, began her essay by saying these words: "When I was quite young..." and I confess that I had a small chuckle at her expense, for from the span of my time I cannot conceive that she has had a day or indeed a day wherein she was not quite young. Perhaps she is remembering yesterday.

But despite her youth she had a quiet intelligence and even signs of wisdom in her essay, thus showing that occasionally old heads do grow on young shoulders, and those who are young occasionally have something to teach to those of us who are not. Her subject matter was a favoured book read to her in her -ah- younger days by her loving mother, which has shone like a light down to her since. It is a book that exemplifies to her what a good book should be: a light in the darkness.

Her article is part of a new and hopefully growing movement among a small but hopefully growing number of writers. The movement calls itself Superversive, a word coined by essayist Tom Simon. It's goals are to be the opposite of the goal most modern and post modern literature, which is subversion. Both superversion and subversion begin with the same assumption: that the world is not what it should be, or more importantly, what it could be. Subversion seeks to come in from below, and to undermine and ultimately overturn the existing structure, or what subversives like to call "the dominant paradigm". Most subversives I have known seek to overthrow and are strong on overthrowing, but are weak when it comes time to replace or rebuild. If their success is total, all will be a wasteland. Superversives do not seek to overthrow, but rather to build up. Not to demolish, but to set examples, and to point out, as the young lady did, lights shining in the darkness, and to seek to create through art, to strengthen what is right, as more important than destroying what is wrong.

(Sadly, the postmodernist within me which I have neither been able to ostracise or exorcise bids me to point out irony here: the success of the subversive movement has made them the dominant paradigm in literature or at least "serious" literature. The Superversive movement, in seeking to reverse that trend, is seeking to overthrow the overthrowers. Therefore, it is in itself a subversion. Ironic, no? And now that my postmodernist has had his say, I will bid him adieu)

The Superversives are, like any who begin a new movement, wrestling with the question of what they are. With these first uncertain steps it is often easier to say what one is not before one states what one is. They are wrestling with the idea of what makes a good book, and this is one of the most difficult questions of all for most people.

Many years ago I took a class in Creative Writing which was taught by a man who was neither creative nor a writer. I imagine such a thing must seem unimaginable to most: it is rather like taking a music class taught by someone who believes themselves competent to teach even though they can't play an instrument, or sing, or read music, and are in fact tone deaf. My only explanation for this egregious breach of common sense is that it occurred at a university, where common sense is egregiously breached as a matter of course, or Course, for the mere price of a few thousand dollars per.

Yet he had an insight for us which stayed with me for years, until my own experience completed it. That insight was this: When critiquing a book or a short story, he said, it is very easy to say what is bad about it, but it is often impossible to say what is good. I knew very well what he meant. He, for instance, took as his model of all that is good in literature to be James Joyce, a man who embodied what he considered to be every virtue in writing. In fact, he heaped scorn on his pupils when we spoke of our favourite authors, and found our writers to be guilty of the unforgivable crime of not being James Joyce. He often could not say what it was that made Joyce so great, and in this we were in utter agreement: I find it impossible to say what was great in Joyce myself, unless it was nothing.

The professor couldn't say what could be good about a book, but the young lady who wrote the essay that inspires today's musings very aptly puts her finger on it through analogy. I will quote her entire paragraph here:

It is one thing to enjoy a decent book and then be done with it, much as you would enjoy cotton candy and then move on to the next thing. But if you had a good, wholesome meal, it would not only taste just as good as the cotton candy, or even better, it would give you more to chew on and leave you satisfied for longer. Maybe you’d even remember it years later as that “One dinner Grandma cooked.” And this is how we should write, and how to write in a superversive way.

It is that "One dinner Grandma cooked" which I wish to discuss more fully, and which brings us back to days and days. I have known both, but it seems to me too many modern writers have known only the one.

Let us return again to Joyce and the only book of his I read from beginning to end: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. It is a series of days in the life of the 'artist'. One scene that sticks out in my mind is a scene at dinner with his family. The table talk slowly gets twisted around to misunderstanding and an argument breaks out, with all the hurt of years coming to the fore as the adults rehash every argument they have ever had. I can find nothing technically wrong with this scene: it is quite well done. Upon reading it I feel that I know these people, that I understand exactly what is happening. He is perfectly drawing out an experience I have lived many times. If these were all that I had lived, or all the days that I remembered, I might think Joyce a great writer, rather than a merely a talented writer who liked to write about loathsome people.

But I remember other days, days for which I am blessed and which shall live in my heart as long as I draw breath. I remember playing games with my family, or going on fishing trips, but my favourite memories, like the young lady's example, are of dinner.

To explain these dinners, one must understand the strange group of people who gathered around the table. I lived in a house with my two parents, my two sisters and one brother, and also my mother's brother and sister. My uncle was the nil plus ultra of uncles: a generous man who loved to laugh and wanted nothing more than for everyone around him to be happy. Everyone should have had such an uncle, and by some great mystery, I find that many people have. As he grew older his memory began to fade to the point that he would be telling a tale, get a little confused in the middle, and then say "That reminds me of a story..." and he would begin telling his story again, not knowing he was repeating himself. It didn't matter: we loved him so that we would not point it out to him. Having received so much love and happiness from the man, we wished only to give it back with interest. With him was my aunt, an altogether more complicated character. It seems to me that there were actually two of her in the same body: a good aunt and a bad aunt. Good aunt was also generous and kind to us, but bad aunt would tally up those kindnesses without balancing them against what she received from us. Bitterness welled up from her from time to time and covered us in an asphyxiating blanket. Of my siblings there was my eldest sister. In those years, before we were aware of such things, she was manic and depressive, and also anorexic and bulimic, and periodically she would leave suicide notes around the house. My other sister was calmer, but she too had an edge. In a family that often showed its affection by trading insults, her tongue was the sharpest. My brother was more often quiet. He was my childhood's chief protector and bully in a way that only elder brothers can be. My father was a master storyteller, but only when the mood was upon him. In those years work took a toll on him, and at times he was worried about a jobless future, and how he could continue to support the family. He did not wish to burden us with his worries, but there were days when he sat quiet and brooding at the table. My mother and father both had strong opinions, which were unfortunately opposite each other. Woe to us when politics were mentioned. My mother was the cook, and she was not terribly good, nor was she perfectly terrible.

With such a crew as this, we could not help but have many Joycean dinners. But we had other dinners, just as we had other days, when mom cooked a dinner that wasn't half bad, and the good aunt was with us, and uncle could tell a joke from beginning to end, and elder sister was in a state that was neither manic nor depressive but somewhere in balance and at peace and the insults were never personal. Times when Dad would lean back in his chair after dinner and take his "tea"- it was a peculiar concoction that was half tea, half milk and half sugar- and light up a cigarette and say, "Y'know, I remember a time..." and he would begin weaving his magic spell.

Those were blessed days, which the young girl understands but neither Joyce nor my old professor ever did. Those dinners live in my memory as a beacon in the darkness. No cold can touch me so deeply, nor wind blow so fierce as long as these memories live within me. No day is so bad that the memory of the old days and the hope of days to come cannot ease its ills.

I suppose my old professor would say that there was something unspeakable about these days, an ineffable quality that cannot be put into words, some thing right that cannot be spoken of. Perhaps I am in danger of effing the ineffable, but I think I know what was right about those days. The professor's mistake was in thinking it could be one thing that was right to explain these days, but it was not any one thing but everything that made those moments what they were. All was good, with no trace of ill. Many things could have gone wrong, but, for a little while, all went right. The bad that might have been was turned aside, and we were all happy.

And conversely, we were made happier because we had memories of those other days and those other times. As Prince Hal once noted, if every day were a sporting holiday, then playing would ultimately be as tedious as working. There are days and then there are days, and we need both sometimes, and to remember that life, and sometimes books, are both to be endured and enjoyed.

Although, in the case of books, those which are endurance tests may be set aside or avoided completely. And it is only right that we do so. I have often heard those who advocate such writings say that they are 'realistic', and yet I find anything hardly less realistic than such writings, to say that only days are real, and days are an illusion.  But it is not so: both exist, both are real.  The one drags us down, but the other lifts us up.  It is good to remember that there are days, but then there are days, and it is not childish or unrealistic to prefer the one to the other. 

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