One and the same

Some time ago, and triggered by a novel I had read, I researched a little around the Portuguese music genre fado, and the related concept of saudade. The term “saudade” is frequently held to have no lexical equivalent in other languages, though the German “Weltschmerz” and the Greek “melancholia” are sometimes mentioned as partially overlapping in meaning. The major reference dictionary for the Portuguese language defines “saudade” as follows:

A somewhat melancholic feeling of incompleteness. It is related to thinking back on situations of privation due to the absence of someone or something, to move away from a place or thing, or to the absence of a set of particular and desirable experiences and pleasures once lived.

I was reminded of saudade today, because I read a line from one of Rilke’s poems, “go to the limits of your longing” (in German: “Geh bis an deiner Sehnsucht Rand”; I actually prefer the English translation of this line, and of the poem as a whole). Maybe the sudden memory of saudade was already prefigured by an article I read last week on Burton’s “The Anatomy of Melancholy”, a new and celebrated edition of which has appeared with Penguin Books on July 1st. Who knows how long, or how many nudges, it takes for a memory to rise to the surface of one’s consciousness?

But back to Rilke. Here are a couple more lines from said poem:

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.
Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.

Now the conjunction of “beauty” and “terror” here precipitated another thought. Because sometimes I ask myself whether these don’t actually fade into one another, or whether, at their very extremes, they’re not actually one and the same.

Some bookmarks (probably not to be deleted after publication of this post):

An accumulation of losses

Sometimes it’s hard not to view life as an accumulation of losses. I recently had occasion to sift through a couple of boxes of memorabilia; photographs, mostly, but also a considerable number of letters, postcards, diaries, and notes of mine.

There are different things that have been lost: People, of course, but also animals, cherished inanimate objects, and probably also parts of myself. And “losing”, when it comes to people, may mean different things: Sometimes you lose someone because they die. (Shame on them.) But there are also many people I liked and whom I simply have lost contact with, for various reasons. I moved away, for example. And I haven’t been especially good at keeping in touch. It took me a surprisingly large amount of time to learn that relationships require work, usually from both parties, and that I cannot rely on others’ reaching out to me. Unfortunately, I am still prone to temporary amnesia when it comes to this simple fact.

It was only when I watched my grandfather after my grandmother’s death that I understood how grief can inscribe itself into a person’s whole being. How the weight of a loss can literally stoop someone. My grandpa had never been an exuberant personality, but now — in the weeks and months following her passing — he walked and talked in slow motion, his eyes usually firmly on the ground.

I think it is well comprehensible how some losses can numb or harden people. So when I sifted through the boxes’ contents, remembering the people, animals, things, and emotions they tell of, I (being the egocentric person that I am) wished for myself that the accumulation of losses, those already experienced and those yet to come, won’t someday prevent myself from moving forward with an open heart, from being shaken or unsettled by new experiences.

For another, but related, thing: I am not usually one to mourn missed opportunities, at least not for too long. As the amount of time you look back upon grows bigger, however, there are less and less opportunities to do something, try something, for the first time. And that thought can be a little uncomfortable, or it is for me. I don’t want to be a “Been there, done that” kind of person. On the other hand, there’s always the opportunity to do something as if it were for the first time. And as nice as new beginnings are, there’s beauty in repetition, too.

A couple of days ago I watched an interview with an ageing philosopher, which I link to below. Many things he said struck me as important, and moving. And now, having given up hope that I will manage to turn this piece of writing into something more coherent, I end this somewhat rambling post.

Me at (approximately) 17, wearing strange clothes and hugging a tree. I have since lost the long hair and the nose piercing but, fortunately, my preference for beeches and slightly eccentric clothing has remained with me.

What does it mean to find one’s voice?

Fun fact: Search for “authenticity” on YouTube and one of the first (non-music) videos to be recommended is of a talk of Jordan Peterson’s, titled: “How to Know You’re Being Authentic or Fake”. Maybe my erratic viewing history messed up the algorithms, though. But down to business: I have been trying to become clearer about the meaning of the phrase “to find one’s voice” — what exactly is it that one finds when one finds one’s distinctive voice? And how does finding one’s voice relate to the notions of authenticity and sincerity? And are those latter two the same thing?

A paragraph by Louise Glück provides some helpful clues — or, more accurately, some inspiring remarks. In a chapter devoted to the notion of sincerity, Glück discusses the work of the poet John Berryman:

It can be said of Berryman that when he found his voice he found his voices. By voice I mean natural distinction, and by distinction I mean to refer to thought. Which is to say, you do not find your voice by inserting a single adjective into twenty poems. Distinctive voice is inseparable from distinctive substance; it cannot be grafted on.

From these lines (and some further reflection) I take the following:

  1. Finding one’s voice is not the same as cultivating linguistic mannerisms. Authors can have very distinctive voices even though their writing is, at least at first glance, devoid of stylistic peculiarities. Of course, even a lapidar and matter-of-fact style is a style — but style doesn’t equal voice.
  2. Voice is intimately related to subject matter. One aspect of finding one’s voice, I guess, is for writers to identify the subject matter or “substance” that deeply resonates with them: which issues they really care about, which ideas truly fascinate them, which questions keep them up at night.
  3. Voices are crafted as much as they are found. A further aspect of finding one’s voice, it seems to me, has to do with deliberately taking up a specific perspective. This perspective may, or may not, resemble the author’s views and experiences to varying degrees, but the two — author and speaker — do not coincide. There’s always choices involved as to what to say and what to omit, how to phrase things, how to arrange sentences on the page. In Glück’s words, the writer “constantly intervenes and manages, lies and deletes, all in the service of truth.”

Truth, authenticity, and sincerity

The aim of poetry, according to Glück, is truth: For the poet, “[t]he love of truth is felt as chronic aspiration and chronic unease.” Much has been written about the notion of truth in poetry, and in literature or art more generally, and I don’t feel ready to offer “an account” of it. But it seems to me (and — surprise! — to Glück) as if the notion of poetic truth, or artistic truth, is closely connected to the concept of authenticity. Authenticity, however, is not the same as sincerity. For while sincerity strikes me as a property of a given work’s author, authenticity primarily seems to belong to the work itself. As a slogan: Producers are (in)sincere, products are (in)authentic. (But then, how come we sometimes speak of people being authentic or inauthentic? I believe that this way of talking can be explained by the fact that we often mean to characterize someone’s public personality, and this “persona” can be more or less close to the actual person. It can be carefully curated, or a more spontaneous expression of one’s inner self.)

So maybe finding one’s voice comes close to something like identifying and expressing (one’s own or some more universal) truth, freely availing oneself of various artistic means. Sincerity might not always be called for, and we shouldn’t expect a congruence between artist, or writer, and work. Here is Glück again:

We are unnerved, I suppose, by the thought that authenticity, in the poem, is not produced by sincerity. We incline, in our anxiety for formulas, to be literal: we scan Frost’s face compulsively for hidden kindness, having found the poems to be, by all reports, so much better than the man. […] The truth on the page need not have been lived.

Another fun fact, in place of further argument: I have always enjoyed — and still enjoy — reading Paul Feyerabend; his philosophical and autobiographical work as much as his correspondence with his contemporaries. When I watched the video of an interview he gave in Rome in 1993, however, all I could think was: “What a self-important jerk!” Regarding Karl Popper my reactions were reversed: His writing struck me as somewhat boring, but witnessing his thoughtful demeanor in another video I watched on YouTube I thought: “What a pleasant brittle old man. I’d like to treat him to a cone of ice cream.”

I’ll end this blogpost with another quote by Glück, which caught my attention because it articulates an ideal for poetry that, to me, seems to work just as well for philosophy. The poet, or philosopher, begins with an honest question and searches for an answer in a way that is as unbiased as possible. The reader is invited to follow in the footsteps of the author’s thoughts, but the work of figuring out the — or an — answer is done by the reader as much as by the author.

At the heart of the work will be a question, a problem. And we will feel, as we read, a sense that the poet was not wed to any one outcome. The poems themselves are like experiments, which the reader is freely invited to recreate in his own mind.

A different philosophy of language

Whenever I have to introduce myself to fellow philosophers I refer to myself as someone working in the field of philosophy of language. But, truth be told, I don’t really work in one of its core fields, nor am I very interested in the technical intricacies of much of contemporary analytic philosophy of language. Sure, I wrote my dissertation on the Sorites paradox, and I dabbled in topics such as the semantics and pragmatics of slurs, and hate speech — but still, the language-related topics that really, truly grip me are ones that don’t really have a place in contemporary analytic philosophy, not even at its margins, as far as I can tell.

Topics like finding one’s voice. For a long time, I felt that I couldn’t speak, and I rarely spoke. I couldn’t put my suffering into words. Up to the present day, I have recurring nightmares: I rage, I scream at the top of my voice, with everything I have. But I cannot manage to make myself understood, heard. I despair. I feel like Rilke’s panther, trapped, filled with energy that just cannot find an outlet.

I need to put things into words in order to fully understand them, in order to make my peace with them. Finding the right words can feel transforming. For some inexplicable reason I believe that there is such a thing as the right word. When I was in high school we read Novalis’ poem “Wenn nicht mehr Zahlen und Figuren” — “When marks and figures cease to be” — and I felt quite strange, because it made me cry in the classroom.

Poetry. Language as a means of expression and as an artform. The acoustic qualities, the aesthetics of the spoken and written word. Poetry — or literature — and its relation to truth, sincerity, honesty, courage, and other concepts. To quote, “expressing the inexpressible”.

Those are the things I feel truly, deeply passionate about. So maybe I should be a writer, or a literary scholar. But I am not so sure. Because some of the above topics, and the questions that flow from them, are philosophical in nature. Or so I think. So lately I have been wondering about the possibilities of a different kind of philosophy of language. About the possibilities of bringing together philosophers, poets, writers of any kind, literary critics — in order to learn more about how language relates to ourselves and the world.

Some of the books that absorbed me more than anything over the past couple of months were books by ingenious writers that tackled these topics. Lydia Davis, Louise Glück. The memoirs of Patti Smith. At the same time I read Wittgenstein’s biography and was reminded of the dictum “Show, don’t tell”. But showing, of course, can take place within the medium of language, too.

Two additions, because they just fit so well:

Subtraction

Now, this is very interesting (and loosely relates to my earlier post on simplicity). Apparently, there’s a (human) default for searching for additive solutions to problems.

When solving problems, humans tend to think about adding something before they think of taking something away — even when subtracting is the better solution. Experiments show that this newly discovered psychological phenomenon applies across a range of situations from improving a physical design to solving an abstract puzzle. People think about what they can add before they think about what they can take away.

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-021-03380-y

This reminds me of a piece of ultra-short fiction by Lydia Davis from the collection “Can’t and Won’t”:

Can’t and Won’t

I was recently denied a writing prize because, they said, I was lazy. What they meant by lazy was that I used too many contractions: for instance, I would not write out in full the words cannot and will not, but instead contracted them to can’t and won’t.

And I’ll end this ultra-short blogpost with a bookmark of mine to finally honor the blog’s name.

Simplicity

I’m proud to be a simpleton. When it comes to writing, that is. There’s little as loathsome as a stilted style that serves no purpose beyond catering to the writer’s vanity.

I’m also always happy to have my undertheorized convictions confirmed by authority. For now, the much-needed authority for my argumentum ad verecundiam is provided by Louise Glück, whose essays on poetry I am currently reading (and re-reading, because they are great). In “Proofs & Theories” — that’s the quite poetic title of the essay collection — Glück writes, “I loved those poems that seemed so small on the page but that swelled in the mind; I didn’t like the windy, dwindling kind.” And, reflecting on her writerly development, “[…] from the beginning I preferred the simplest vocabulary.”

These two quotes should suffice to make my case.

For those not yet entirely convinced, I add one of my all-time favorite poems. It is simple, light, playful, tongue-in-cheek — a brilliant ode to revery.

To make a prairie

To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,
One clover, and a bee.
And revery.
The revery alone will do,
If bees are few.

Emily Dickinson

The night my mother crashed my car

Time for oversharing.

One morning I was woken by my very agitated father. He urged me to get up and follow him downstairs and outside, where, apparently, a police officer stood waiting for my statement. My car had been found on some farm road a couple of miles away, crashed into a bollard. Both my father and I knew that it hadn’t been myself who crashed the car. However, until shortly before, neither my father nor I had had any idea that my car had been involved in a crash in the first place.

My mother had taken my car the night before. Without my consent, of course. I had gone to bed already. She had been drunk and I (or my father, I don’t remember this detail) had hidden away the keys to her own car, so at some point she must have decided to take mine. And at some point she must have crashed it. And after that she must have returned home some way, probably in part by foot, in part by taxi. Anyway — at the time the police rang at our front door, my mother was sound asleep in her bedroom.

On our way down the stairs, and through the hallway, my father briefed me. I was to confirm the story he had already told the officer, namely, that I must have forgotten to lock the car, and that some youngster, or youngsters, from the neighbourhood must have taken it for a ride. And confirm the story I did. The officer mustered me carefully, and for some reason decided not to press the matter further. The details, again, are somewhat blurred — but I think that my father arranged for the car to be towed away, and for the bollard to be replaced or paid for, and I suspect that the policeman didn’t want to get me into trouble. I’m sure he thought that I, or one of my friends, had caused the crash.

My mother and her relationship to cars. I have an early childhood memory: Her speeding on the autobahn for no discernible reason, myself in the back seat, afraid, not understanding why we were driving so fast, and why my mother seemed so strange, tense and silent. At some point my mother took the exit close to Lüttelforst, and we visited my grandparents. There was no talk about the autobahn. Much later, when my much younger siblings were of primary school age, she took them on a nocturnal drunk drive. She then left them in a parking lot in front of a bar, to sleep. She returned to her car because some other customer had noticed my brother and sister in the back. My mother got into a fight, the police was called, she tried to escape the parking lot, ramming other cars — and I was told that my brother tried to calm my sister down when all of this happened. I wasn’t at home at that time. Neither was my father, but I have no idea where he went that night. At any rate, I was crushed when I heard about the incident the next day.

I don’t remember whether the parking-lot incident was followed by my mother’s first stay in a psychiatric ward, or whether it took place in between what would eventually become a handful of hospitalisations. There were many more incidents, not all — not even most — of them involving cars, I lost track of some. There are fragments that stand out, which my memory returns to from time to time — but the order of events is hard to reconstruct for me. My siblings were too young to remember as much as I do, and my father rarely talks about the years that were most intense. My parents are divorced by now, and my mother has been relatively stable since 2010, roughly. She has managed to keep her job, and she lives in a flat by herself. Needless to say, she doesn’t have a driver’s license any longer.

There’s so much shame involved in a family history like that, or at least there was for me. For years, I spoke to almost nobody about what had happened to my mother, or to us. Her repeated stays in psychiatric wards were burdensome, and yet it took me about a year to tell my then-roommate, who had long (tried to) become a friend and repeatedly asked why my mother didn’t come around to visit, about the “problems at home”.

I felt lost for so long, unable to connect. I was afraid of people, except for very few very carefully selected humans. And then I became afraid of things like shopping, or riding a train, or going outside. Or speaking. When I was around twenty I experienced a severe bout of depression. I tried to be interested in something, anything, but I wasn’t. Again, the chronology of things in this post might be a little messed up, but at some point I went to a doctor, was prescribed SSRI and things slowly improved. Thankfully, I have never felt that level of desperation again. Now, even if I feel bad about some thing or other, there are always good things, too. Like horses, or my running buddies, or the vegetables I grow.

I guess that, all things considered, my younger brother and sister and I are pretty resilient. I read somewhere that, in these cases, there’s usually a person that provides a semblance of the much-needed stability and normality. During my childhood, youth, and early adulthood this person has been my grandmother, whom I loved and love very, very much. When she died in 2016 it felt like I had lost the one person who nurtures and protects like no other. And for close to fifteen years now this tether has been my partner. I sometimes look at him with surprise and ask myself how on earth he bears living with me, for I couldn’t live with myself, that’s for sure.

Writing this post felt intense, but in a good way. I regret that, once again, I belie the motto of this blog. No bookmarks to go with these remarks. Maybe I should rename the blog Confessions.

Words

Two days ago I gave what was probably the worst talk of my life.

I began my talk as any sane person would: impeccably dressed, well kempt, and smiling. I made sure in advance that my camera and microphone were working well, chose my virtual background picture carefully, and had my shiny Type-A-personality mask firmly glued to my face.

Things began to unravel when I happened upon my next-to-last slide — for which I hadn’t prepared in writing — and felt at a loss for words. Earlier that day I had convinced myself that I would be able to improvise when facing the respective bulletpoints. After all I had given the same talk three years ago already, and at that time the plan to improvise had worked well enough. This time, though, I floundered. And my floundering was then followed by a Q&A from hell. The questions were perfectly in order, nothing mean or annoying. At all. Many people in the audience knew me, some were former students of mine — everybody was friendly and well-meaning. Still, I just crumbled. I either gave wrong answers, or very strange answers, or no answers at all, and I knew full well that my answers were, hm, less than ideal. The most terrible thing about the Q&A were the audience’s very tangible attempts to help me out of my predicament by asking easier questions. I somehow survived the thirty minutes, and immediately afterwards felt partly desperate, partly numb.

The correct answers to the audience’s questions began to dawn on me the night after. And the night after that. Oh, and at daytime, too. I rehearsed again and again each and every stupid thing I said. I have a habit of obsessing over stupid stuff I said. And because I have said stupid stuff in the past I have developed a habit of monitoring myself up to a point where I’d rather not say anything at all. It’s not always like that — there are times when words come more easily.

In hindsight, I shouldn’t have agreed to the talk in the first place. I didn’t feel comfortable talking about the topic, but it felt impolite to decline an invitation. The most obvious problem, though, was my inability to prepare until a couple of hours before the talk. I have always struggled with procrastination, but lately I get the feeling as if I’m trying to stretch the concept to its very limits — as if I’m trying to become the postergirl of self-sabotage.

I’m glad I can write this now, that, at least, the Q&A from hell occupied my mind for no longer than two nights and one-and-a-half days. That’s a good thing. Roughly 36 hours of beating oneself up should be enough. I mean, I didn’t torture a cat or something. Only an unsuspecting group of philosophers.

So what now? Yesterday I got in touch with a tried and trusted mental health professional. That’s another thing I’m glad about. Because something shifted — for quite some time, more than just a few weeks, I wondered whether I should just quit my job. And I agonized over whether I’d not someday terribly regret a decision to quit. Now I think I’ll try something else first. We’ll see how that goes.

On Closing Doors

“He came to earth to tidy up” — that’s what a former acquaintance of mine once told me the inscription on the headstone of her father’s grave reads. Apparently, he had devoted a considerable part of his lifetime to the establishment of a low-key terror regime regarding the cleanliness of their family home, and this was the family’s tongue-in-cheek way to finally get back at him. I have no idea whether the story is actually true or not, but I find it hilarious either way.

“She came to earth to close some doors.” That’s what I would like my headstone inscription to read. And then it would be great if someone added a graffiti reading: “Also, horses.” But back to business. One must not allow oneself to get sidetracked. The business of this post being: the closing of doors.

Letting go is hard, whether of thoughts, feelings, people, or one’s idea of oneself. In defiance of the claims of several hard-boiled self-help gurus, I remain unconvinced that it can be accomplished by breathing exercises or the ritual burning of todo or other kinds of lists.

I had a hard time letting go of the negative feelings towards my dissertation. During the six years it took me to finish it I came close to a complete meltdown more than just once, and there were prolonged periods of time where I did not only resent the manuscript with every fiber of my being, but questioned my own sanity for ever having worked up the audacity of embarking on such a project.

When I had to revise the manuscript for publication all these negative feelings came back, though slightly attenuated by some temporal distance. I didn’t feel much relief, not to speak of pride, or happiness even, when I eventually sent the final draft off to the publisher. The only vaguely positive feeling I could discern was a pale contentment that, at last, I wouldn’t have to face the text any longer.

And so my emotional reaction to yesterday’s delivery of a couple of specimen copies of the finished book took me by surprise. Because I actually felt happy and proud, and compelled to call my relatives in order to spread the good news. I still see the text’s many weaknesses, but for some reason I seem to have decided to like it anyway. I hope things stay that way.

Door closed, mission accomplished.

On Trying Something New

When I was in my teens my father diagnosed a general inability of mine to follow through with something. Apparently, I had taken up too many after-school activities only to drop them again after a few months, respectively. Among the discarded were handball practice (too aggressive for my taste), gymnastics (I didn’t really fit in with the group age-wise), and the school choir (not sure why I dropped this one — it seems fine in retrospect). I believe I thought of myself as a “quitter” for some time as well. It took me a while — and a school drop-out — to gather some evidence to the contrary: On my second attempt to acquire the German higher education qualification I tried extra hard to stay the course, and it worked.

Still, I don’t think there’s merit in following through with something — or shame in quitting — per se. It would be more than odd if someone were to say: “Well, that’s an utterly worthless and shitty thing to do, but at least she followed through with it.” It’s good to have the ability to stick to something through periods of hardship or stagnancy when you see some value in whatever activity it is that you are pursuing. But if you don’t, or if you do but realize that there is a misfit between the activity and yourself — in my case, handball — then you should probably quit. Or else you might miss out on opportunities to try some different, better suited, thing.

I have found that, in my case, trying something new frequently helps with the sticking-to-it aspects of life. I started a blog when I felt overwhelmed by my master’s thesis, took up running and did some online coding course when I felt stuck during my PhD, and when the current pandemic hit I began to learn some Japanese (turns out Japanese is really hard — who would’ve thought?) and started another blog.

Taking up new activities when you’re already in over your head with old ones might not seem the best idea, so I felt a little relieved — not to say validated — when I recently read an article about the perks of trying something new. Apparently, learning new things builds emotional resilience and thus helps “to weather setbacks and navigate life’s volatility”. Here’s a charming case of a fellow individual who likes to try new things:

Eight years ago, while working as an assistant Cuyahoga County prosecutor in Cleveland, Gayle Williams-Byers was in the throes of a serial killer case when she decided to take horseback-riding lessons. This summer, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, Ms. Williams-Byers, 46, now a South Euclid Municipal Court judge, started free online classes in American Sign Language offered by Gallaudet University in Washington. She also took a webinar in labor trafficking. In recent years, she has enrolled in a variety of classes and workshops, including one on how to get a commercial driver’s license — not something she plans to act on any time soon.

Luckily, I don’t have a serial killer case to work on right now. But I get the decision, and not just because I think that horseback riding is an excellent choice. To try and learn something new amidst challenging circumstances (whatever it is that constitutes a challenge for you) can be a helpful coping strategy rather than an unhelpful distraction. For me, not only does it help to take my mind somewhere else, but it reminds me that there are many areas out there which I haven’t so much as grazed, that it’s possible to change oneself, that the trajectory of one’s life is not fixed — and those are beliefs I have always clinged to and wouldn’t want to give up.