An Incessant Shower of Innumerable Atoms

woolf-virginiaI recently came across a passage in an essay by Virginia Woolf that resonated with me in a surprising way, and I thought I would share a few thoughts on it.

The passage comes from her 1925 essay “Modern Fiction,” in which she discusses several then-current authors and the subject matter with which they chose to deal in their works. While she doesn’t take for granted the idea that fiction of recent times is automatically better, a manifestation of “progress,” than older works, she does believe that a new approach was emerging. In the case of authors she criticizes, like H.G. Wells, Arnold Bennett, and John Galsworthy, she feels that they are “materialists,” concerned with the outer rather than inner life, “making the trivial and the transitory appear the true and the enduring.”

That observation leads to the beautiful passage that got my attention:

“Look within and life, it seems, is very far from being ‘like this.’ Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives a myriad impressions – trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms; and as they fall, as they shape themselves into the life of Monday or Tuesday, the accent falls differently from of old; the moment of importance came not here but there…”

Later on, she states it in a different way: “Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end.”

If a writer were to choose to focus on that “incessant shower” of impressions, Woolf says, “there would be no plot, no comedy, no tragedy, no love interest or catastrophe in the accepted style, and perhaps not a single button sewn on as the Bond Street tailors would have it.” Writing of the intentions of one author, James Joyce, who seemed to have embraced this idea, Woolf writes, “Let us record the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall, let us trace the pattern, however disconnected and incoherent in appearance, which each sight or incident scores upon the consciousness.”

Now, Woolf is obviously critiquing fiction, saying that traditional forms fail to convey fully the processes of the human mind, and that one of the projects of modern writing is to experiment with alternative strategies that might evoke those processes more accurately. At the same time, I think we can see in her marvelous words the truth of what we experience on a moment-to-moment basis.

If you were to examine your thought processes closely during a five minute period at, let’s say, a movie or symphony concert, or while you’re driving somewhere, what kinds of thoughts would travel through your mind? I mean to include not just extended trains of thought, but even fleeting impressions.

I hope I turned off the heat at home.
It was really difficult to find a parking spot this afternoon.
I wish I’d slept more last night.
Lots of stupid drivers out today.
Will I have time to complete my project at work on Monday?
I hope her knee is healing OK.
I wish that person would stop coughing!
Oh, the clarinetist clammed that note.
I’m hungry.
This is kind of a boring movie.
Look at the way the sunlight glistens off of those mountains!
Why can’t they make these seats more comfortable?
Etc. etc.

Yet, if someone were to ask you later that day what you were doing during that time, you’d likely reply, “I was at a symphony concert,” or “I was driving home from work.” That might very well also be what you’d put in your journal at the end of the day, too. Our thoughts are all over the place at any moment, as anyone who has tried to meditate can verify. Innumerable thoughts and impressions pass through our minds. Many come to consciousness, a few are memorable, and very, very few make their ways into the narrative we are constantly creating for our own lives.

If we were to come upon a person on the street carrying on an ongoing conversation with her- or himself, we would probably think that there was some psychological or mental health issue there. Yet we all do this all the time – we’re just a little more decorous about it and keep the conversation to ourselves within our brains. But that little voice, that incessant chattering voice registering all those fleeting thoughts, is always with us.

Our impressions of the world around us, too, get focused, put into some kind of form, by this chattering voice. We actually take in much more information than our conscious minds can handle. Aldous Huxley took this idea to its extreme in The Doors of Perception: “Each person is at each moment capable of remembering all that has ever happened to him and of perceiving everything that is happening everywhere in the universe. The function of the brain and nervous system is to protect us from being overwhelmed and confused by this mass of largely useless and irrelevant knowledge, by shutting out most of what we should otherwise perceive or remember at any moment, and leaving only that very small and special selection which is likely to be practically useful.” Or, as Michael A. Singer puts it in The Untethered Soul, “Your consciousness is actually experiencing your mental model of reality, not reality itself.”

So as not to be overwhelmed and paralyzed, our minds automatically, mostly without conscious input, reduce the “incessant shower of innumerable atoms” to just a few. To a large extent, this happens simply to give us at least a small sense of control over a world that is raging around us, entirely out of our control. We’ve got to bring order to it, somehow. How else can we function? How else can we find happiness? How else can we find ourselves? How else can we create ourselves?

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Sunday Salon 1-29-17

Sunday Salon badge squareTime and Place: 3:00 in the morning, afflicted by insomnia, at my main computer at home.

Reading: This week, I completed Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams, one of just four novels this great author and longtime University of Denver professor completed. At first the book felt a little plodding to me, short of action and long on description. But as I read, I realized that the fault was mine. Williams’s descriptions of landscape, people, and the interior life of Andrews, the main character, are in fact detailed, but also careful and engrossing, giving the novel a power and gravitas that I gradually succumbed to. Now I’m anxious to read his other two mature novels, Stoner and Augustus. I also just finished the very entertaining Absolutely on Music, conversations between Haruki Murakami and Seiji Ozawa on various musical subjects. I hope to write something up on that book in the next few days.

Viewing: For reasons that I really can’t fathom, I have found myself less than attracted to the idea of watching movies lately. Perhaps it’s the overwhelming number of viewing options I have. Or it may be that my brain, greatly enfeebled in recent days and weeks, is just not up to the task of concentrating on a single thing for an entire two hour period. Whatever the problem is, I hope it goes away soon. Halfhearted viewing of political news and old television shows isn’t really doing it for me.

Listening: My listening habits have been off as well. What music I listened to this past week was related to the program notes I have been writing for upcoming concerts by the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine and Reno Philharmonic Orchestra. The notes for the former are now done, and once I’ve tackled writing a nice essay on Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, I’ll send off the latter ones this week. Hooray for completed projects.

Blogging: Due to a very emotionally-trying past week, I didn’t manage to blog at all. I do have a couple of things in the works for the coming week, though, if I can follow through on them.

Pondering: Today, I will be attending my first Reno Chamber Orchestra concert since I left that organization not quite a year ago, after fourteen years of service and never missing a performance during that time. It will be a strange feeling, and I hope a not-uncomfortable one. I do look forward to the music, and to reconnecting with the people in and around the Orchestra.

And finally:
bad

Sunday Salon 1-22-17

Sunday Salon badge squareTime and Place: 7:30 on a cold, snowy, pretty Sunday morning, at my main computer at home.

Reading: This week, I completed two books from my “inspiration” stack – Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert, and, after starting it months ago, Julia Cameron’s The Right to Write. Both, I would have to say, were helpful but not really revelatory. In the case of Cameron, I had already read The Artist’s Way, so I was familiar with her approach and techniques, many of which I follow (I faithfully do my Morning Pages every day). Gilbert’s book was very enjoyable and reinforced some concepts that I needed to encounter again. But the book was also high in anecdote and rather low on specific suggestions for moving forward. I am currently reading the western Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams, and have just started Absolutely on Music, the conversations between Haruki Murakami and Seiji Ozawa that were recently released in English.

Viewing: Other than a little political news, I rather unusually watched no movies or television this week – at least until last night, when I watched a couple of films starring Dana Andrews on Turner Classic Movies. Boomerang! (1947) was a very good early effort by Elia Kazan in quasi-documentary style that featured an excellent cast, including Lee J. Cobb, Jane Wyatt, Karl Malden, and Arthur Kennedy. Fallen Angel (1945) was one of two films Otto Preminger made, along with A Royal Scandal, the year after his huge hit Laura (which of course also featured Andrews).

Listening: Last week, I posted about the music that I am now myself writing, having gotten back to creating music after a break of over fifteen years. I was hoping that that post and making my efforts public would propel me forward to more creating. Unfortunately, it had the opposite effect, and paralyzed me for several days. But I’m now back on track. I believe that the album, should I actually complete it, will be called Jade, and will be comprised of two sections of around 20-25 minutes apiece. The segments I’ve written so far seem to divide themselves pretty naturally into two sets. The most recent segment I wrote evolved from another I’d already done, for three harps backed by synthesizer arpeggios and textures, that is somewhat static and mysterious. After noticing that it used a pentatonic scale, I decided to vary the tune slightly, slow it down a bit, and rearrange it for gamelan instruments. Now it sounds more than a little otherworldly. It would be an unusual way to start a piece, but I might just use this gamelan section to start Part 2 of Jade. In terms of music other than my own, I’ve just started on the listening and gathering of information for the next set of program notes I have to write, for concerts by the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine and Reno Philharmonic Orchestra (the latter includes Gustav Mahler’s First Symphony, which I’m looking forward to pondering and writing about).

Blogging: My main post this week was a look at Olivia Laing’s book The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone. I also happily acknowledged Penguin Awareness Day on Friday, and passed along a couple of quotes from Seneca. All in all, it was a somewhat slow week.

Pondering: I’m sure I’ve said this sort of thing before, but, with this monk-like existence that I have right now, I miss having people with whom to share my thoughts, about all the above subjects and many others, whether trivial or semi-profound or personal. Some of those thoughts will inevitably turn up here at the blog, and the others I’ll just keep to myself for the present.

And finally: I’ve already mentioned Penguin Awareness Day, the annual celebration of which happened on Friday. So, to continue the celebration, please enjoy Penguins Doing Penguiny Things…

A Separate Life

“Some there are that torment themselves afresh with the memory of what is past; others, again, afflict themselves with the apprehension of evils to come; and very ridiculously both – for the one does not now concern us, and the other not yet … One should count each day as a separate life.”
– Seneca

It’s Penguin Awareness Day!

Today is one of the most important days of the year. And, no, I’m not referring to politics. January 20 in Penguin Awareness Day, when we acknowledge and pay tribute to those noble, fascinating, vaguely comical flightless birds that we love so much. Below is a handy chart that will help you to Know Your Penguins. And do say “Thank You” to any penguins you happen to meet today.
know-your-penguins-chart

penguin-awareness-day

Olivia Laing: The Lonely City

laing-the-lonely-city-coverThe Lonely City
Olivia Laing
(2016, Picador, 314 pages)

“What does it feel like to be lonely? It feels like being hungry: like being hungry when everyone around you is readying for a feast. It feels shameful and alarming, and over time these feelings radiate outwards, making the lonely person increasingly isolated, increasingly estranged. It hurts, in the way that feelings do, and it also has physical consequences that take place invisibly, inside the closed compartments of the body. It advances, is what I’m trying to say, cold as ice and clear as glass, enclosing and engulfing.”

Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City is an enlivening and inspiring book on a subject that isn’t at all enlivening or inspiring: loneliness. Subtitled “Adventures in the Art of Being Alone,” The Lonely City came out of Laing’s own experiences after the abrupt end of a relationship and a move to New York City in her mid thirties. Rather than simply give in to her loneliness, she decided to examine it, and whatever deeper meanings it might have, through the lives of artists who dealt with loneliness themselves in very different ways. Laing focuses on four: Andy Warhol, Henry Darger, Edward Hopper, and David Wojnarowicz.

Frieda Fromm-Reichmann was one of the first psychiatrists to write about loneliness, noting that it is hard to define, and not really communicable to other people. It is very hard for a deeply lonely person to reach out, and equally hard to be reached out to. Social scientist Robert Weiss also addressed the subject in his 1975 work Loneliness: The Experience of Emotional and Social Isolation. He sees victim blaming as especially common here. Despite how hard it is to make the connections that would cause loneliness to dissipate, Weiss imagines those on the outside saying “Why can’t the lonely change? They must find a perverse gratification in loneliness; perhaps loneliness, despite its pain, permits them to continue a self-protective isolation or provides them with an emotional handicap that forces handouts of pity from those with whom they interact.”

Edward Hopper was uncomfortable with the fact that so many found loneliness to be a central theme in his paintings, and generally rejected such simplifications. However, as Laing writes, “his paintings tend to be populated by people alone, or in uneasy, uncommunicative groupings of twos and threes, fastened into poses that seem indicative of distress,” combined with a distinct sense of space, “the way a feeling of separation, of being walled off or penned in, combines with a sense of near-unbearable exposure.” One can see this in his Hotel Window, which I posted to this blog yesterday. The same applies to Nighthawks, one of Hopper’s most famous works, which was described by Joyce Carol Oates as “our most poignant, ceaselessly replicated romantic image of American loneliness.” (If you visit my Facebook page, you can see that Nighthawks is prominently featured there.) Along with his paintings, Laing writes about Hopper himself – his taciturnity, his strained relationship with his wife Jo, his admission that he himself was “a lonely one” – and how those characteristics come out in his work.

Edward Hopper, Nighthawks (1942)

Edward Hopper, Nighthawks (1942)


Andy Warhol is depicted in The Lonely City as painfully shy, awkward with language (English was his second), and self-conscious about his physicality and his homosexuality. Yet he molded himself into a very successful commercial artist in the 1950s. Then in the 1960s he turned his attention to the Coke bottles and Campbell’s Soup cans and Marilyn Monroe images for which he became famous. As Laing points out, there is only a degree of ironic detachment in these works. He may well have been making a statement on consumer society, but in part he dealt with his subjects because he liked them, because he took to heart the familiarity and regularity that they represented. It’s also true that, with the repetition and regularization of his works and by almost cartoonishly codifying his own physical appearance, Warhol was aiming toward mechanization, and away from emotion and individuality.

David Wojnarowicz had a very difficult upbringing. Experiencing poverty and neglect, homelessness and malnutrition. a violent father and an inattentive mother, he found himself turning tricks at age 15. For years afterward he found it almost impossible to talk to people about his experiences. So he found other ways of expressing himself, through art and sex. At one point, Laing becomes fascinated with Klaus Nomi, the short-lived countertenor singer who cultivated an otherworldly, theatrical appearance and who made a huge splash in the late 1970s and early 1980s before dying in 1983 of the newly-named AIDS. Laing details some of the paranoia and ignorance that surrounded AIDS in its early days. Wojnarowicz was also among those who contracted AIDS in those early years of the disease, and he became a prominent activist on the subject using the various forms of his art, including painting, photography, and writing.

Laing spends a lot of time at the Wojnarowicz archive, listening to his audio journals: “as with Nomi’s singing, I found the act of listening somehow alleviated my own sense of loneliness, simply because I could hear someone voicing their pain, giving space to their difficult and humiliating feelings.” Among other things, Wojnarowicz rages against what he called “the pre-invented world” of what Laing calls “mainstream experience, which seems benign, even banal, its walls almost invisible until you are crushed against them.” Laing sums up her reaction to Wojnarowic’s work: “It was the rawness and vulnerability of his expression that proved so healing to my own feelings of isolation: the willingness to admit to failure or grief, to let himself be touched, to acknowledge desire, anger, pain, to be emotionally alive. His self-exposure was in itself a cure for loneliness, dissolving the sense of difference that comes when one believes one’s feelings or desires to be uniquely shameful.”

Henry Darger, a janitor at Chicago Catholic hospitals for over fifty years, had almost no friends and little social life other than going to church regularly. No one was aware of the fact that throughout those years, he was working on The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion, a novel that runs to 15,145 pages (the longest known work of fiction), as well as over 300 paintings. He also wrote a second long novel and an autobiography. (I’ve written about Darger before, in a short discussion of recluses.)

Henry Darger, 172 At Jennie Richee. Storm continues. Lightning strikes shelter but no one is injured. (mid 1900s)

Henry Darger, 172 At Jennie Richee. Storm continues. Lightning strikes shelter but no one is injured. (mid 1900s)


Laing notes that a lot of the writing about Darger, perhaps because of the strange, sexually problematic nature of his work, has been of a psychological nature, analyses of his character and possible mental illnesses. All too little discussion has been about the work itself. So Laing decided to read as much of his autobiography as she could. As a young child he was placed in a home run by nuns, after his mother died and his father decided he couldn’t take care of him. His unusual behavior caused him to be moved to a home for “feeble-minded” children, where he stayed for several years. Laing reviews some of the evidence from psychologists on the effects of isolation, of lack of love and connection, in children, and the debilitating effects that lack can have in adulthood. Laing sees some of that in Darger’s life story, noting that “It’s not only factually incorrect to assume mental illness can entirely explain Darger; it’s also morally wrong, an act of cruelty as well as misreading.”

As her days in New York City stretch on, Laing spends increasing amounts of time on the internet, and wonders what it is she is looking for. “I wanted to know what was going on. I wanted to be stimulated. I wanted to be in contact and I wanted to retain my privacy, my private space. I wanted to click and click and click until my synapses exploded, until I was flooded by superfluity. I wanted to hypnotise myself with data, with coloured pixels, to become vacant, to overwhelm any creeping anxious sense of who I actually was, to annihilate my feelings. At the same time I wanted to wake up, to be politically and socially engaged. And then again I wanted to declare my presence, to list my interests and objections, to notify the world that I was still there, thinking with my fingers, even if I’d almost lost the art of speech. I wanted to look and I wanted to be seen, and somehow it was easier to do both via the mediating screen.”

Ultimately, Laing finds consolation in her deep interaction with loneliness, and with the art and artists that depict aspects of that all-too-common, often debilitating condition. “When I came to New York I was in pieces, and though it sounds perverse, the way I recovered a sense of wholeness was not by meeting someone or by falling in love, but rather by handling the things that other people had made, slowly absorbing by way of this contact the fact that loneliness, longing does not mean one has failed, but simply that one is alive.”