TO LIVE TO READ TO LIVE
Gimmickry attached to the world of belles-lettres has me chagrined: not the book itself, but the buying of the book, the book trailer, the story “behind” the book, the “personality” who wrote the book. The latest iteration, where reading is concerned, revolves around the reputed mental health benefits of reading, it keeps your brain fit. This may be partially true, but to use it as reasoning to do something that doesn’t call us is underhanded, bullying. A true reader, a true human, doesn’t need to be sold on anything that is so fundamental.
There is an intricate latticework in place when one reads, which is to say, we bring our history, our secrets. Upon reading a paragraph of Patrick White’s The Vivisector, really skipping and tripping over the sentences as initial foray to a comprehensive read, I had a rare sacred experience of time travel. The cliched transportive reading.
The house was so warm, so suffocating, smelling of dust in spite of a team of maids, he could have choked on the way to his room. The half darkness through which he was climbing seemed to be developing an inescapable form: of a great padded dome, or quilted egg, or womb, such as he had seen in that da Vinci drawing. He continued dragging round the spiral, always without arriving, while outside the meticulous womb, men were fighting, killing, to live to fuck to live.
I stumbled over the first sentence—I saw the words but didn’t really read it. I gathered more from the second, but was still fogged by not fastening to the first and had to go back. Yet before I could, the last leg of the third’s “…to live to fuck to live,” lighted like sick neon. The construction didn’t make sense without the sentence’s beginning, but at the same time something from the cocktail of the first and second sentences along with this pornographically babbled mantra brought up an image of myself on a brick lined old world street. I stood still under jaundiced streetlights as an early spring mist fell. The scene I am describing (in front of me is a small deserted square—with a church steeple in the middle distance) did occur some seventeen years before, almost to the day, in a small German city, Ludwigshafen. Essences surround, with a scent of Deutschland’s slightly less polluted night and its crisp verdant air, inhabiting it like movable scenery—more film set than theatre. This night is filled with the menace of a David Lynch fugue state before the djinn shows. The images in White’s paragraph have little to do with the scene, but some single words do: “darkness,” “inescapable,” “da Vinci” in an offhand way. Yet, if I hadn’t read it, and read with a wandering eye—no memory. This frozen, but very vibrant scene—a sort of metaphoric Henry Jamesian window onto other windows for prose not yet written—is a grand two-way mirror no one but me can see into. A secret state, the kind we sue to share with the right person in the best moment after the correct amount of time—a state more precious to some souls than any other riches.
Why should the uncomprehended disjecta of the paragraph have brought me back to Ludwigshafen? It was a moment in which nothing was set, everything open. I had just arrived in Europe to live indefinitely. Maybe the image was my way of composing an internal progress report. Without return there is no reflection and without reflection there is impulsiveness, chaos, blunders—the same brand that X’s social media as a cute cuddly asp, preying on insecurities. Give me the mica-glitter of the imagination so at least I’ll get off on home-grown prozac and remain unbeholden to the instant gratification of computer and pop culture.
Words and shards of words obliquely line the faults underlying our consciousness. Maybe we read to imbricate what to many is the monotony of living. Some prefer a rollercoaster rush, a zip-line journey of seconds over an expansive treeline. A difference of temperament: a firework flash heart attack or the rising white heat of revelation? Reading is a much more shattering experience to some because the process obliterates what has gone before and casts the past in different marble. Malcontent Edward Dahlberg famously ranted how people who read too many books are lickerish, that is greedy and lecherous, but also tempting to the appetite. And one might say voluptuary, verging on romantic. Many readers, no matter age, have lived long enough to believe life is the most precious thing we know. To savor art and architecture, which vivify more than any other thing civilization has accomplished, is a root activity of the human mind.