Life’s a Bitch . . . and Then You Reincarnate

August 5th, 2009

I’d love to claim credit for that line, but it’s the title of a chapter in Tim Ward’s terrific piece of spiritual tourism, The Great Dragon’s Fleas, which I’m now reading. Sadly out of print but still available used on Amazon, the book is a sort of Pilgrim’s Progress through verious spiritual communities in India, China, and Southeast Asia.  Ward is willing to be dirty, cold, and uncomfortable as he seeks enlightenment, a trait I admire since I’ve always secretly hoped enlightenment would be included with my cable subscription.  (And why not?  The Enlightenment Channel — I’d probably watch that over most of the clutter that cable offers.)


Anyway, my point:  studying in a Tibetan lamasery in India, Ward is meditating over the following lines:

Search in this complex transient heap/For whatever is thought to be “I”/Seeing it to be empty of self.

The accompanying commentary says, with exquisite understatement, “The gradual expansion of the vision from the universe being a collection of independently self-existing entities to a field of interrelated, insubstantial vibration can be painful and should be cautiously practiced.”

No shit.  Having the self disappear entirely, and the world we believed it ruled dissolve into a kind of fritzing foam of alternating current can be, to put it mildly, disorienting.  Or try terrifying.

When I read this, I had three more or less instantaneous reactions.

First was how powerful, concise, and clear the commentary was.  I literally laughed out loud in admiration.

The second reaction reveals my age: I thought, that’s what a bad trip was about, back in the palmy days of psychedelics.  Not being able to fight terror at the simultaneous loss of self and our trusted road maps.

Third was that Buddhism and cosmology/particle physics really point in the same direction.

Not until later did I start to think about its implications for writing.  I think ideally, at least as far as the reader is concerned, the writer should disincorporate to be reincarnated, at least in fragments, as the book’s characters.  Few things put me off a book more quickly than the writer suddenly elbowing into the narrative with a clever or quasi-profound observation that can’t be attributed to any of the people in the book.  I’m always left thinking, Who said that? And after I have that reaction three or four times, reading the book begins to be a little too much like hanging with the bore at a party who starts to tell you a story about someone else and winds up talking about himself.  A short anecdote about running into someone you both know turns into twenty minutes of setting the stage about why the speaker was there, what in the speaker’s life (often beginning with childhood) put him into that place at that time, what the speaker thought/felt/did, and most often said, during the encounter.  (The words that tune me out of a conversation most quickly are, “And then I said . . .”)

The story about the third person is gone.  What’s left is the bore.

I may be oversensitive to this because I have to fight it all the time.  Keeping myself and my opinions from making unattributed appearances (preferably in crimson ink, like the old Red-Letter Gospels) requires vigilence.  But I think it’s worth it; I think writers need to die, as far as their narratives are concerned.  We need the characters and the world they live in, without Authorial Presence.  Or at least, I do.

15 Responses to “Life’s a Bitch . . . and Then You Reincarnate”

  1. Walt Pascoe Says:

    This is a really interesting insight. As a reader, I have instinctively felt this dynamic at work in less successful narratives, but hadn’t made the mental effort to articulate exactly what it was that made it so annoying, distracting, and ultimately ineffectual. It’s enlightening to hear it analyzed from the perspective of a writer.
    It also brings to mind a passage I’ve been dwelling on (o.k., obsessing on)from “Speaking With The Dead” by Jürgen Pieters p.125-6 :
    “Of all the definitions that Barthes gave of the act of writing(it would be possible to collect a stunning anthology), the following is one of the most fascinating. It occurs in the preface to the 1964 collection of his Essais Critiques: ‘Inevitably, to write is to remain silent. To write, in a certain sense, is to be silent like the dead, to become the person to whom the last reply is denied. To write is from the very beginning to grant that last reply to the other.’…”

  2. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    That’s exactly right, Walt. To write is to be silent. Other people get both the last and the first word, and we should also leave it to the reader to supply the ultimate response. Another thing I’m losing patience with are writers who tell me how to feel about what happens in their books.

    Once again, though, I have to admit that I’m extra-aware of this because I have a tendency to over-explain things myself.

  3. Greg Says:

    What you guys were discussing reminds me of a device I’ve seen used in some films where the actor looks into the camera and talks to the audience. I really don’t care for that. It pulls me out of the story because the actors aren’t supposed to know I’m watching, are they? It seems like a self- conscious thing to do and draws attention to the actor outside of the context of the story.

    It seems like some very good writers have done a similar thing – I’m thinking of Anthony Trollope in Barchester Towers – where, in the midst of the story, the narrator startles me by saying, “my dear reader,” and proceeds to tell me that I need not worry that so and so is going to end up with a certain person, which would be a travesty and therefore is not going to happen. Whew, that’s a load off my mind – or did it just wreck a perfectly good piece of suspense?

    Is this at all what you guys were talking about and if so, what do you think of it? Does it break the author’s silence and become a distraction for you or is Trollope so damn good that he pulls it off? In truth it didnt bother me much but it did remind me that I was a reader – and just when I was enjoying the advantage of my invisibility cloak .

    Was the “my dear reader shtick something that was done exclusively in that period? I don’t recall having seen it in contemporary works.

  4. Greg Says:

    PS: the captcha that just showed up is simians bedroom. I think I remember that from The Bone Polisher.

  5. Lisa Kenney Says:

    This is almost spooky. This concept almost came to me last night. I was on the edge of breaking through to this thought but I didn’t quite make it all the way there. But that’s it. It is so simple and so profound and so true and yet, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard anyone talk about it before. Thanks Tim.

  6. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Thanks to you, Lisa for finding your way through half a dozen inept tweets to leave a comment here. Can’t wait to see you in Denver.

    Greg — There’s always an exception, and Trollope is one, in this case. He is such a presence in his narrative — the sane, bluff, goodhearted Englishman, telling us a story he knows will delight us — especially in the Barset books, which are relatively early, that we never mind it when he drops the veil and speaks up. And then, of course, the Barsets are in comic mode, and we’ll forgive a writer almost anything if he or she makes us laugh. I laughed out loud when Trollope simply dispensed with four or five potential plotlines just to ease the reader’s mind.

    There is no rule, however universal, that a genius can’t break. But artists need to know the rules, and the reasons for them, before receiving an artistic license that permits breaking them.

  7. Lisa Kenney Says:

    In thinking about Greg’s comment — wouldn’t you say that in the case of Trollope (who I shamefacedly admit I still haven’t read), I’m assuming he is addressing the reader in an omniscient voice and therefore, it’s really not Trollope’s voice coming through. And in some meta-fiction where often the reader is addressed as an intentional literary device — Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler is a good example of this — I think that’s fine too.

    I think even in these cases, the point is probably still apt because the voice addressing the reader shouldn’t be the writer at all, but the fictional voice the writer creates. Even in those cases, the writer should disappear — which may be even more difficult than in cases with a narrative that does not include an omniscient narrator.

    Or — I may be out in left field.

  8. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Lisa, you are so on. That’s precisely right, and I didn’t know how to say it. Trollope, who was in real life a complex man who’d been ignored by his mother (a writer, by the way — and in two of his books the woman who supports her children by writing leaves a great deal to be desired) . . . as I was saying a long time ago, he was in real life very complicated, and that bluff, hearty, commensensical voice was part of the fictional world he was creating. It was the kind of world this kind of person would tell us about, and you could rely on it to reflect his values, or to be roundly disparaged when it failed to do so.

    GREAT perspective.

    See what you started, Walt? Greg?

  9. Walt Pascoe Says:

    I don’t think you’re way out in left field at all, Lisa. What you guys are touching on rings true to me. There is an analogue in my world (visual arts) that I have always found extremely difficult to articulate. It has to do w/ Tim’s statement:
    “There is no rule, however universal, that a genius can’t break. But artists need to know the rules, and the reasons for them, before receiving an artistic license that permits breaking them.”

    This dynamic was excruciatingly apparent in the decades following the initial blossoming of post war abstract expressionism, when a host of earnest young artists decided that they could skip all the years of rigorous technical practice underpinning the work of someone like Bill de Kooning, and just start getting all emo and flinging paint around as if they were instinctively brilliant at the ripe old age of 25.
    Or my other favorite example:Improvisational Jazz. How tedious is it to listen to a middling player try to be as spontaneous as John Coltrane w/o having mastered all the classical antecedents that make the “real thing” possible in the first place.
    I find it extremely difficult to talk about this notion w/o sounding like a pedantic old scold. But there is something deeply significant about having to “walk the walk”, put in the years of disciplined apprenticeship, before you get to go ape shit disregarding every convention in sight.

    OK rant over. Hope I haven’t gotten to far off topic, Tim. Thanks to all for the stimulating bit of conversation.

  10. Walt Pascoe Says:

    And we can see who is NOT a skilled writer around here, as I tack on this concluding bit:
    The “silence” is in essence a form of apprenticeship. A putting aside of the notion that “I” must express my (oh so important)self right now. And instead giving oneself over to the capital P Practice.And the irony is that only by negating ones authorship, is it ultimately achieved in spades down the road almost despite ones “self”.

  11. Lisa Kenney Says:

    Well said Tim and Walt. I just love this topic.

  12. Greg Says:

    Yes, this has been a very enjoyable and insightful conversation. Thank you.

    It started me thinking about good acting versus bad and how someone like Meryl Streep can embody a character so thoroughly and unobtrusively that one would swear she was the person she was portraying. Silent authorship?

    Pretty much the antithesis of Jon Lovitz’s “Acting” skit on SNL where all you could see was Jon Lovitz whether he was Goldilocks or the King of England.

    I want to be able to enjoy the art without any interference from the artist. Whoops. That stampeding sound I just heard was all my little “darlings”
    being herded out of my work in progress.

  13. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Wow. I should try to be serious more often if it provokes discussion like this. Walt, I’m in complete agreement; the requirement that mastery should precede experimentation holds true in both writing and the visual arts. Every now and then one comes across someone who has never written/painted/composed anything and who turns out something astonishing, but usually it turns out to be one of two things — the debut of a prodigious talent, or the one-shot triumph of someone whose subsequent career will be a disappointment.

    And, yes, learning to get out of the way of the story and the characters is an important landmark in a writer’s development. And Greg, the Lovitz bit is exactly right (and really funny) although it can also be a parallel to the work of a writer who just can’t create characters who don’t think and talk just like him, and produces a sort of puppet show where all the puppet have the same voice.

    My captcha is “vodka either”

  14. Larissa Says:

    So I didn’t really read all the comments like I probably should but to make a note about the first ones and the topic of the blog post-I tend to think it’s really funny and interesting when the fourth wall is broken…assuming it’s done correctly. I think Nabakov does a great job of it, so does Tom Robbins…when it’s done well it can be a really interesting sort of spin on the narrative…sort of the thing that Tim O’Brian is always talking about when he’s making his point about how a story can make you believe anything is true-by breaking through the fourth wall i think the author is showing us that anything can be manipulated-even that which we think has a set format and is supposed to be happening right in front of our eyes and all holds us accountable in some ways..we are the reader, we are the audience and as such I think it’s nice to be addressed sometimes, just to see if we’re paying attention. I dunno. I tend to appreciate it in small chunks.

  15. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hey, Riss — I agree, when it’s done right it can be very effective. I think my favorite film version is in “Tom Jones” when Joyce Redmon, as a trollop who’s just learned that the young stud she’s been shagging is probably her son, turns to camera and gives a perfect, “Who knew?” shrug.

    I’m currently reading David Mitchell’s “Number9dream,” which is my favorite book of the year so far, and he keeps peeking around the first-person narration by giving this relatively ordinary Japanese kid some of the most breathtaking observations I’ve ever read. God, what a book.

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