Notes on Linda Yablonsky, The Story of Junk

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How can a person suffer this much and still want to go on living? He’s dying in a hospital bed, and even as he talks to her his eyes keep fluttering up to the TV screen. “He still wants to look at the pictures.”

William Burroughs suggested we’re all addicted to images. It’s these, rather than life, we’re addicted to. Life is a means to an end, and you might not notice it go by, or find that you valued life at all for its own sake. It’s just the pictures. (Living life through our phones is just the latest popular manifestation of this ages-old condition.)

I’m going to die means No more pictures.

Is there a next life will it be image-based? Can you remember how long it took when you came into this world to adjust and make sense of the pictures? Life a confusing blur and you just cried all the time. In the next life the images will be so strange it doesn’t make sense to call them images. Some other kind of thing. Perhaps this is why people say after death there is nothing: it’s the same thing as nothing, if you can’t make sense of it.

If you can’t draw a picture of it, well then where is it? No images, no nothing.

A heavy supposition that your next form of existence will be based on need. That you will need something or other to become addicted to. For us it’s images and you can’t imagine life without them. This is what need does: structures your life so you can’t imagine life without the thing you need.

As long as there is need there is Burroughs’s little phrase: “Wouldn’t you?” Wouldn’t you steal, in the junkie’s position? Wouldn’t you kill, living the desperate life of a pirate? It’s no good being moralistic about these things. You can’t judge someone whose need is greater, or just vastly different, from yours.

One could be critical of your complacency in the face of so much human suffering. You cast your vote and let it happen. But you might say: “Wouldn’t you?” Impossible to think of shaking the image habit – turn off the news, stop reading the papers, stop thinking.

Image-addiction: it’s not the images that are the problem. It’s the addiction. But image is an addictive substance. It’s true, you have to build an addiction. One shot won’t do it. The image has to be pushed until it’s everything. Who is pushing the image? There’s no conspiracy, no hidden agenda: we each of us push the image on each other. This stuff sells itself.

It’s just more obvious now, the way we do it. Sharing pictures on social media, it didn’t happen if I don’t share it. That’s you, in the picture. That’s you again. As many sides to your personality as there are photographs.

You have to be in the world. You have to experience and live it. It seems impossible, until you’re given an image to hold on to. This is you. Here I am. This is how you look to me. To us. To yourself. This is us. Add another image, and another. Is this the world then? Is this life?

Back in 1997, Burroughs wrote: it’s not an experience unless it’s shared. The worst thing you can be is alone. Linda Yablonsky says: when you walk away from others who need you, hide yourself away from their pain, refuse them help, your world shrinks and empties itself until you are the only thing left in it. And if it’s just you, then existence is pure darkness, because there’s no one to share it with and so nothing to see.

At customs she lies and says she is travelling alone, and does it a lot. In fact she can’t bear to imagine travelling alone. It makes no sense to sightsee without someone to point out the sights to, take a picture with. Life, in order to be life, must be a “scene” – musicians, artists, and writers check each other out from their restaurant tables. A scene: to see and be seen. More pictures, more scenes, more images.

Indifference to the images, once you realise that’s all they are. Indifference of the images: one image as good as another. Invest your energy in one image, rather than another. Nothing has value unless you give it value. Don’t look down.

A modern indifference to life: nothing can fill the holes that get wider, darker, and deeper. Nothing is substantial or real enough to fill anything.

Some of her friends say that what is needed is an alteration of consciousness, the only way to save ourselves. We’ll have to wait and see. Even the message of salvation here is a message of indifference: meditate, do nothing, wait and see, and change will come. If everything is image, then everything is the same. Anything can change into anything else. Wait and see. “You never know what will happen, but something always will. Something always happens.”

Somehow the dream is bigger than any something the world promises. Not this or that happening in the world, but a change in the world itself. A change in my relationship to it.

The dream is to feel “swallowed whole.” For the world to consume you entirely, so you become fully a part of it. A feeling of belonging.

What can you do if you just can’t be part of the world? For example, if you are a junkie, a mode of existence that is forbidden. Many others like this. Forbidden people. Nobodies.

Why do they go on then, these people, when they suffer so? Life a passing spectacle. Even if I can’t be in it, I can look at the pictures.

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Phaethon

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His mother has always told him that his father is Helios, the sun, but now his friends tease him.

“Your mother is a liar,” says Epaphus. “No one knows who your father is, and so she told you a story. And you’re still such a child that you believe it!”

Phaethon runs home with tears in his eyes. “Mother, did you lie to me?” She tells him: “Go and seek out the sun’s palace, and ask him yourself. I did not lie to you.”

So he travels on towards the horizon for many long days. As the sun passes overhead each day he looks into the clear bright sky and wonders if it could possibly be true. And as the sun sets each evening he lets himself believe that it is calling warmly to him from the horizon, urging him onward. “Just a little further, and you will arrive one cool evening at the palace where the sun rests each night, to be welcomed by your father.”

He arrives at a palace made of a stone that glows the colours of a wondrous sunset. And inside it is bright as day. And the throne room is brighter still, and suddenly he realises why his father is necessarily a distant one: few can bear to be close to one who shines this bright. And yet when he has asked his question, and Helios has made his simple heartfelt answer – “Yes, and you are welcome” – he goes up to his father, squinting against the brightness of his shining robes, and embraces him, weeping tears of joy.

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Notes on Robin Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy: Royal Assassin

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What is a life for? This is the question that Fitz is asking again and again, in one form or another, as he tries to find his place in the world and wonders whether it’s all worth it. It’s easy to despair in a cynical world of court intrigue, treachery, and division in the kingdom. By the middle of the book, Fitz sees the situation as so hopeless it is almost funny. So the question becomes an urgent one: what to do with the life you have, despite the fact that success is so far from assured?

Royal Assassin is the second book of Robin Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy, and so it deals with all the trouble set up in the first book – the ambitions of the treacherous Prince Regal, the destruction wrought on the coastal towns by the Red Ship Raiders, Fitz’s struggle to contain his forbidden “Wit” or “beast magic” – with some more problems thrown in on top of that. By the end of the book we’ll be expecting to find some of these issues resolved, with plenty left unresolved to take us into the final book of the trilogy.

In many ways this is a classic tale of a hero struggling against impossible odds. The whole story is told from Fitz’s point of view, and we’re with him through every trial. So much so that the question of What should I do? becomes really what the book is about, its main theme. So we find Fitz being lectured by the King’s Fool:

“‘This, more than anything else, is what I have never understood about your people. You can roll dice, and understand that the whole game may hinge on one turn of a die … But a man’s whole life, you sniff at, and say, what, this nought of a human, this fisherman, this carpenter, this thief, this cook, why, what can they do in the great wide world? And so you putter and sputter your lives away, like candles burning in a draught.’

“‘Not all men are destined for greatness,’ I reminded him.

“‘Are you sure, Fitz? Are you sure?’”

The answer to the question What is a life for? is: to change the world. To bring hope and joy to others. To make a difference. In other words: to be a hero. The Fool’s speech comes at about the midpoint of the book, when things are looking bleak. And throughout the rest the reader can only hope that Fitz will remember the Fool’s words, remember that it’s down to him, just as it’s down to everyone else, not to give up in the face of evil.

Something I like very much about Hobb’s approach to storytelling in this book is her decision to focus on Fitz, and tell everything from his point of view. In other novels of this kind, tales of cynicism and treachery, it can all become quite tiring, as character after character is introduced and then sacrificed to the ambition of the villain. It’s difficult not to get detached from the story when you don’t have a single character to follow all the way through to the end. Of course there is plenty of treachery and murder in this book, but Fitz at the centre gives the whole thing a beating heart, a point of view and even a certain idealism by which we can evaluate the horror of what is going on around him. And by which we can measure him when his courage slips and we find ourselves, as readers, urging him on to find his best self again.

The best thing about Royal Assassin is it’s a fantasy story that’s about something, which has a meaning and a moral you can take away from it. Perhaps that’s true of any story that you enjoy – it resonates and that’s why it sticks to you. It’s more than just entertainment, however easy and enjoyable it is to read. Either way, this is what makes Robin Hobb, for me, one of the best and most interesting fantasy writers.

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Notes on Bleak House: “Bell Yard”

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Mr Skimpole reflects on “how things lazily adapted themselves to purposes.” There’s no other way things can adapt. Let nature take its course. Principle of non-resistance. This is how Mr Skimpole lives his own life, never working or worrying.

Mr Gridley is naturally very angry at the way he’s been treated by the courts. A question of three hundred pounds has been turned into endless time and costs, and he lives now in ruin. If I were not angry I would lose my mind. He keeps fighting though it’s hopeless, and in this way preserves himself.

Anger is often seen as a failure to adapt, a failure to accept the situation, a futile railing against unchangeable circumstances. But here it’s presented as the natural way of things. Mr Gridley is going with the flow. “I am not polite,” he says. That’s just the way I am and I accept it.

It’s easy to see why things never change for Skimpole: he does not resist, does not strive, just enjoys sunshine and good company when it comes. But Gridley’s passivity – his acceptance of the anger the courts inspire in him – is harder to detect, clothed as it is in the ceaseless activity of his struggle against injustice. But his outward resistance fuels the legal machine, gives it just want it needs to go on, and even in his red-faced rage he lowers his furrowed brow and submits to its infernal authority.

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Notes on the Magic Mountain: “Mynheer Peeperkorn”

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A more than usual appreciation of – linked to his need for – alcoholic drinks. He appears to chew the liquid before it goes down, he spends so long savouring it.

His head must be blurry from all he drinks – at least one full bottle of wine with every meal, sometimes two or two and a half, and always a drop of gin. Perhaps for this reason, he talks incoherently.

But he talks marvellously, inspiring wonder with his hands as he speaks. Hypnotic these hand gestures, thumb and forefinger in a circle and palm outspread, so that whatever nonsense he speaks his audience, watching those hands, cannot doubt they have heard something wonderful, true, perfect, the very best. Close your eyes as he talks – if you can! – and you’ll hear he’s said precisely nothing.

I am speaking, I am speaking – so even to say nothing is to say something, even the mere act of speech signals one’s own existence, and can even, spoken loudly and confidently enough, seem to assert one’s own importance. Hans Castorp calls him a “blurred personality”: you can’t deny he’s there, but what is he exactly? He must be something, but there is nothing to grasp.

Blurriness within, blurriness without: it is as if he projects his own inner drunken muddle outwards, and in this way intoxicates his audience.

(I’ve been reading Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, translated by H.T. Lowe-Porter.)

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Notes on The Magic Mountain: “By the Ocean of Time”

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Not to deny reason, but to set limits to it. Beyond the limit of reason is life. If reason were allowed to dominate all, there would be no room for life, which after all needs room to experiment, and see for itself, and be itself.

Not to deny the value of reason. But outside of its appropriate sphere, reason becomes monstrous in its confusion disguised as certainty, knows not of what it speaks and yet does so volubly.

Kant wanted to limit reason to leave room for faith. Thomas Mann is suggesting we do so to leave room for life. Perhaps these amount to the same thing, since what is life without faith? Life is always uncertain, and so a certain faith and optimism is required to live well.

Imagine walking beside an ocean, and far out at sea you see a boat. How far away is that boat? Impossible to tell in that glance; just looking at it, the distance might be infinite. Beyond a certain limit there is no longer any visual frame of reference to allow any answer with certainty. So it is with reason when it moves outside its sphere.

And yet in some things, things distant and transcendent yet essentially human, certainty is required. Things of the soul and human purpose. Reason can’t help us with these things having no frame of reference, and so faith is required.

This is not to take a medieval view, where everything confusing is deemed illusory, and the only reality is “an abiding present.” Faith without reason would send us back into a dark age. And even as reason finds its limit, and the need for faith is accepted, reason will continue to push outward, tentatively and experimentally, into the realm of faith. No longer content to merely glimpse that sail in the distance, ways and means are learned to calculate its location, when this is required. The mystery remains, and perspective, as experienced in the moment of glancing, is still a mystifying thing. Reason’s sphere will be extended, gradually and over time. The appeal to faith and the limit of reason is, after all, an appeal to our thinkers to use reason well, and carefully, and with due patience and respect for the mysteries they would solve.

(I’ve been reading Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, translated by H.T. Lowe-Porter.)

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Notes on The Magic Mountain: “A Soldier, and Brave”

“I am glad to see that despite your enthusiasm for freedom and progress, you have some feeling for serious things.”

So says Naphta to Settembrini as they stand at the deathbed of the young man. What could be more serious than death? And what greater refutation of liberal optimism, than the fact that every life must end in death? For the moment, as they mourn the deceased, Settembrini, the progressive, lets Naphta, the reactionary, enjoy his morbid victory. There is nothing to say in the presence of death itself.

Just as in Hans Castorp’s vision: while the fact of death calls for kindness and reverence for one another – why not be kind, since life is short? – the actual sight of it, and experience of it, sends a shockwave through us, and we recoil in sorrow and despair just as Hans fled from the murderous witches in his vision of the inside of the temple.

If Hans really did see the truth in his vision, then Naphta has it precisely backwards. It is by taking death seriously that one learns reverence for one’s fellow human beings, and this reverence leads to our insistence that there are such things as human rights, and such rights must be respected. Settembrini, silent as his opponent scores his point, shows the reverence for the fact of death that must lie at the heart of any humanistic world view.

(I’ve been reading Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, translated by H.T. Lowe-Porter.)

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Notes on The Magic Mountain: “Snow”

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“What he had dreamed was already fading from his mind.”

So vivid the dream, so full of meaning, and as he lay there in the snow he had vowed to live for love and virtue, and never to let death enter his thoughts.

But already the dream fading, will any trace of it be left the next morning? Some remnant of it visible in his disposition, which perhaps even he will not recognise for what it is?

What he had seen most vividly was the smiling reverence of those people for each other, a seriousness veiled in joyfulness, never austere or sombre. Except in that one boy’s glance back at the temple, where he had seen in that face a look of sadness like grey stone, as momentarily he saw the horror that goes on behind those bronze doors. He realised that all these joyful and gracious people knew full well of these horrors, and that this was the reason for their kindness and respect for one another. How could unkindness be possible, knowing what darkness finally awaits each and every one of us? Pity we might feel, and from this follows tenderness and love for our fellow sufferers. A taboo on all solemn talk of death, since death we will all know soon enough.

Already the dream fading, and what he saw so clearly he could articulate it, and declare himself for love over death, virtue over despair and abandon, is now become perhaps something instinctive that belongs to him, that will perhaps be visible in a joyfulness and tenderness almost imperceptible.

And yet … Hans was already full of good will and kindness for his fellow sufferers, with his friendly manner and compassion for the sick and dying. So what can have changed? Perhaps the dream was never a sign for him to change, but a reflection of what he already was.

(I’ve been reading Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, translated by H.T. Lowe-Porter.)

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Notes on The Magic Mountain: “Operationes Spirituales”

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There is no chance that Ludovico Settembrini and Leo Naphta, the intellectuals portrayed in The Magic Mountain, will ever agree with each other. If one of them says something, you can guarantee that the other will say the opposite.

It reminds me of what Hegel says about the absurd notion that truth is found in opposing “thesis” and “antithesis”: it’s like two children arguing, each determined only to contradict the other.

Is it possible that anyone could consistently hold either of these extreme positions? Agree fully with either Settembrini or Naphta? It seems they can’t even agree with themselves: in their desperation to contradict each other, they fall into self-contradiction.

Confusion arises. And at the height of the confusion, the name “Hegel” is mentioned. Appropriate to reference the great thinker, at the very moment that all oppositions blur and every logical distinction dissolves away.

This conversation could go on forever, it has no limit. Argue long enough and a soupy chaos is created. And still the conversation continues. So was it all for nothing? Perhaps chaos was the point, all logical preconceptions now laid low, and out of the resulting turmoil something new can emerge.

(I’ve been reading Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, translated by H.T. Lowe-Porter.)

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Notes on The Magic Mountain: “An Attack, and a Repulse”

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Hans Castorp knows something we don’t. You might wonder why a book like The Magic Mountain is so long: well, it treats of a subject impossible to put into so many words. So you need to sit with it a while, take your time reading it, and gradually the lesson sinks in. Or perhaps it doesn’t, and never truly can. Perhaps we’re all too much of “the world below.”

Have you learned to laugh when the subject of “time” is brought up, the way Hans does? When people talk of “wasting time” and seem to be in so much of a hurry. This is the way of the world below, concerned with business and getting on. Hans now thinks of three hundred years ago as recent history. And even the people of a couple of thousand years ago are near enough that he can see them clearly, as if in the near distance, when he thinks about them.

Have you learned to be serious on the subject of time when it’s just you and your own thoughts, and you’re free to contemplate, and you lie horizontal on your balcony, looking up at the stars? It’s your hard-won deep understanding of time that allows you to shake your head at the worldly, or shrug it off and let it fall away.

By the end of this section of the book, Hans has won his freedom. His uncle, who came to bring him back down to earth, has given up his quest and fled the mountain, fearful that if he remained an hour longer he would be drawn too into its alternate time, and he would lose the world below altogether. Hans is now past this fear in himself. No one will return for him, and he is free to dwell up here in his alternate reality, close to the stars and those highest and most mysterious truths that hold him fascinated.

(I’ve been reading Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, translated by H.T. Lowe-Porter.)

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