I go into my library at 3 o’clock of a winter’s afternoon and pluck from the shelves a book I acquired a few years ago, obviously intended to be read just at this moment right now. It’s a beautiful old hardback book called Things that have Interested Me (1921) by Arnold Bennett, the ‘Five Towns’ novelist. It has pages guillotined only at the top and a previous reader has carefully cut many pages by hand – it’s a delight to handle. (By contrast, my mind shifts by association, just for a moment, to a vision of people on trains with these unkind e-things they pretend to be reading…)
This real book is full of more or less absorbing little anecdotes & observations, political, artistic, musical, sardonic, human, humorous, and so on, including some that offer valuable insights after the style of the author’s own Literary Taste, Mental Efficiency and so on…
The piece that really held my attention, and on which I’m focusing in this Glob, is called TRANSLATING LITERATURE INTO LIFE. The argument in short is that there’s no point in reading unless the contents of a book affects your life in some way. I agree. A book can set a being-pattern going, sew long unbreakable threads into your days: just as elsewhere Bennett writes: ‘…When one looks back one sees that certain threads run through one’s life, making a sort of pattern in it. These threads and the nature of the pattern are not perceived until long after the actual events constituting them…’
Since 1951, when I bought the first few books that have resulted in the accumulation that I now like to call ‘my library’, I think that, without putting it quite like that, I’ve always sought to integrate my reading with my thinking with the way I do life. It’s not just a matter of learning but, for example, I learned about the true function of colons & semi-colons and the typographically handy Deviant Use of Initial Upper Case from reading Thomas Carlyle – Sartor Resartus – very early on…
Of [Teufelsdröckh’s] Boundless Learning, and how all reading and literature in most known tongues, from Sanchoniathon to Dr. Lingard, from your Oriental Shasters, and Talmuds, and Korans, with Cassini’s Siamese Tables, and Laplace’s Mecanique Celeste, down to Robinson Crusoe and the Belfast Town and Country Almanack, are familiar to him – we shall say nothing: for, unexampled as it is with us, to the Germans such Universality of Study passes without wonder, as a thing commendable, indeed, but natural, indispensable… A man that devotes his life to learning, shall he not be learned?
Substitute any names of any books you like for those in Carlyle’s list and you can make a similar comment on your own experience.
Charles Lamb’s Essays of Elia were fundamental in providing me with a way of looking at scenes & situations as neatly crafted entities. On a much larger scale, Richard Jefferies’ The Story of My Heart both summed up what I’d felt about life in my first fifteen years on earth and also inaugurated a very firm broadly ‘philosophical’ pattern that’s served me well for the next 62 years.
In the Old Days, when I performed the role of teacher, I fell into the habit of starting a session in a roundabout kind of way to keep the listeners guessing, so they’d be not quite sure of what was going on until multiple pennies began to drop; this approach was reinforced when I read about Gurdjieff’s advice to do things ‘otherwise’. For some reason, obeying rules and toeing somebody else’s line has never been my way… And so it appealed to me that Arnold Bennett begins his short article TRANSLATING LITERATURE INTO LIFE with a story which he uses as a metaphor to link his argument together and to draw conclusions:-
Lo, a parable! A certain man, having bought a large, elaborate, and complete manual of carpentry, studied it daily with much diligence and regularity. Now there were no cupboards in his house ; his dining-table consisted of an arrangement of orange-boxes, and he had scarcely a chair that was not a menace to the existence of the person who sat down upon it. When asked why he did not set to work, and, by applying the principles of the manual, endeavour to improve the conditions of his life and of the lives of his wife and children, he replied that he was a student, and he plunged more deeply than ever into the manual of carpentry. His friends at length definitely came to the conclusion that, though he was an industrious student, he was also a hopeless fool.
It’s perhaps inevitable (because I have already, in other ways, translated this way of Opening a Piece by Mystification & Story into my life as a teacher) that I warm to Bennett’s beginning ploy.
I suppose that when you’ve read enough and already done quite a lot of assimilating you’re bound to find things going round in circles; here it’s the reverse of Bennett’s argument: what happens in books you read can often serve as a confirmation of what you already feel to be the case; like the Autodidact in Sartre’s Nausea, I find it exciting to discover something I’ve thought about (and imagined to be original!) in a proper author’s writing! Unlike the Autodidact, I do not wait to find my ideas in somebody else’s writing before I take committed ownership of them. For me, reading is a confirmation rather than a justification.
What is Bennett getting at with his parable?
By [it] I wish to indicate that there is no virtue in study by itself. Study is not an end, but a means. I should blush to write down such a platitude, did I not know by experience that the majority of readers constantly ignore it. The [intending carpenter] who pores over a manual of carpentry and does naught else is a fool. But every book is a manual of carpentry, and everybody who pores over any book whatever and does naught else with it is deserving of an abusive epithet. What is the object of reading unless something definite comes of it? You would be better advised to play billiards. Where is the sense of reading history if you do not obtain from it a clearer insight into actual politics and render yourself less liable to be duped by the rhetoric of party propaganda? Where is the sense of reading philosophy if your own attitude towards the phenomena of the universe does not become more philosophical? Where is the sense of reading morals unless your own are improved? Where is the sense of reading biography unless it is going to affect what people will say about you after your funeral? Where is the sense of reading poetry or fiction unless you see more beauty, more passion, more scope for your sympathy, than you saw before?
I got to wondering how I have by accident fallen into the habit of ‘translating literature into life’… Well, for a start, since the 1950’s, I’ve more or less systematically maintained a collection of quotations from the books I’ve read; I have a feeling this began when I had a sudden self-defined need to model my essay-writing at school on the work of ‘professional’ essay-writers – those who might be assumed to know what they were doing (Elia, George Bourne, Carlyle, Belloc and so on) in order to get a good mark from English teachers – and I did get good marks! When I look back over my notebooks from the last forty years I constantly find handy little apophthegms that have indeed become synthesised into organic guidances for living; often I have become so used to following the guide that I’ve forgotten the source.
I can test this out! I open a notebook (March 1990 – June 1991) plucked at random from a shelf in my workroom, confident that the page I open it at will reveal something that’s become part of who I am. Lo and behold:-
Living a life that to its real shape
Evolves, increases, swells its girth, ascends
As an unconscious and a splendid tree,
A fact of Nature, not a random plan…
(Four lines from The Land by Vita Sackville-West)
One of my fundamental beliefs: just keep going at it and everything will eventually ‘gravitate to order’, as John Aitkenhead, once headmaster of Kilquanity House School, said to me (1967) about his pedagogical process.
On the opposite page to Vita Sackville-West’s four lines about ‘organicity’ is a photo of pen & notebook and Volume IV of Dorothy Richardson’s brilliant Pilgrimage, set down on a long gone lawn in Norfolk where one afternoon in summer I was slumped in a deckchair reading & writing as is my wont, concocted from which, on an earlier page, there’s a found poem (dated 26th August 1990):-
live always remote
drawn away into the depths
of your spirit see
all time freshly –
a perpetual Sunday
kept in shape by bells
and traffic without commerce;
a dance or game whose rhythm
lets you into an eternal
way of being; spend
all your days sabbatically
in a way that keeps people
upright and apart
Exactly two years after this, upon escaping from Wage Slavery, I converted all the days of my life into a ‘sabbatical’ flow.
Relating to writing in this way is without doubt a two-way process, systemic: all the fruits of prior learning alert you to sequences of words you already recognise as part of your growing soul; after which the isolation of a valued quotation enters your other-than-conscious being and transforms it in some inscrutable way.
So far this has been some indication of how I translate literature into life, not at all that my application of principles always measures up to my high expectations.
It’s many years since I read a book solely ‘for pleasure’ in the usual sense; I make the assumption that there’s always some learning, hard or easy, to be acquired from reading; mighty pleasurable I find it to tackle books that others might find very hard-going: all the pleasure then is in unpicking locks.
Bennett continues that if anybody boldly answers…
…“I only read for pleasure,” then I retort that the person who drinks whisky might with force say: “I only drink whisky for pleasure.” [and presumably not to arrive at some quasi-visionary state!] And I respectfully request you not to plume yourself on your reading, nor expect to acquire merit thereby. But should you answer: “I do try to translate literature into life,” then I will ask you to take down any book at random from your shelves and conduct in your own mind an honest inquiry as to what has been the effect of that particular book on your actual living. If you can put your hand on any subsequent period, or fractional moment, of your life, and say : “I acted more wisely then, I wasn’t such a dupe then, I perceived more clearly then, I felt more deeply then, I saw more beauty then, I was kinder then, I was more joyous then, I was happier then – than I should have been if I had not read that book” – if you can honestly say this, then your reading of that book has not been utterly futile. But if you cannot say this, then the chances are that your reading of that book has been utterly futile. The chances are that you have been studying a manual of carpentry while continuing to sit on a three-legged chair and to dine off an orange-box.
I stand on my library steps to do a bit of book shifting – there are lately read books in a horizontal position which offends my eye. I determine that the last book on the right hand side of this particular shelf will be the one I will open at random in order to accept Arnold Bennett’s challenge. The last book on the right turns out to be Dostoevsky’s House of the Dead. It’s some years since I read it. I open it up at Chapter 2 where Dostoevsky begins to ‘copy out’ Alexander Petrovitch Goriantchikoff’s account of his ten years of hard labour to which he was treated for murdering his wife.
Our prison was at the end of the citadel behind the ramparts. Looking through the crevices between the palisade in the hope of seeing something, one sees nothing but a little corner of the sky, and a high earthwork, covered with the long grass of the steppe. Night and day sentries walk to and fro upon it. Then one perceives from the first, that whole years will pass during which one will see by the same crevices between the palisades, upon the same earthwork, always the same sentinels and the same little corner of the sky, not just above the prison, but far and far away. Represent to yourself a court-yard, two hundred feet long, and one hundred and fifty feet broad, enclosed by an irregular hexagonal palisade, formed of stakes thrust deep into the earth. So much for the external surroundings of the prison. On one side of the palisade is a great gate, solid, and always shut; watched perpetually by the sentinels, and never opened, except when the convicts go out to work. Beyond this, there are light and liberty the life of free people! Beyond the palisade, one thought of the marvellous world, fantastic as a fairy tale. It was not the same on our side. Here, there was no resemblance to anything. Habits, customs, laws, were all precisely fixed. It was the house of living death. It is this corner that I undertake to describe.
Whenever I read a fictional account of prison-life I am immediately reminded of Gurdjieff’s idea that we are all of us in the prison of Personality; the literary extract leaps out at me as a metaphor and I relate any development of prison conditions to the ways in which we choose to remain in prison. Here’s Maurice Nicoll on the subject:-
There is a phrase that is often used in this Work, and also in other ancient esoteric writings, to the effect that we are in prison. Mr G used to say that no one realises their own situation. “All of you,” he said, “are in prison, and all you can wish for, if you are sensible people, is to escape. No one, however, can escape from prison without the help of those who have escaped before. Only they can teach you in what way escape is possible.” At one time his favourite statement was that if a person in prison is to have at any time the chance of escape they must realise first of all that they are in prison. So long as you fail to realise this, so long as you think you are free, you have no chance whatever. If we do not realise our mechanicalness we imagine we are free. We imagine that we do everything from ourselves, by our free will.
When we choose ‘habits, customs, laws, [to be] all precisely fixed’ so that we behave mechanically it’s a sure sign that we are bound to a wheel of slave-like repetition. We choose to remain in that state because it’s relatively comfortable not to have to think about the next step; it is a state of self-calming which we choose for ourselves. It is sticking to the old habits run by the Personality – those which go on precisely in ‘the way we’ve always done it’.
This prison that Mr G so often spoke about is first of all your Personality. In the case of Mr Smith, say, the prison is Mr Smith whom he does not observe at all and whom he takes to be himself. What does he have to do to begin to make it possible to emerge? One way is to divide himself into ‘I’ and Mr Smith. He is with Mr Smith all day and so he has plenty of opportunity for observing him and no excuse for saying that he can never get Mr Smith on the telephone, but because he is with Mr Smith so much he does not see him and he does not know that Mr Smith makes him do everything. You will see that really one should say, on meeting Mr Smith, not merely: “How are you?” but one should add: “But how is Mr. Smith?” And Mr. Smith should reply: “Oh, Mr. Smith is very fit, but ‘I’ am in rather poor health.” for it is only he who can liberate himself.
Before we can get out of prison ‘…beyond the palisade, [into] the marvellous world, fantastic as a fairy tale…’, where we can re-fashion our beings in a Second Education, we have to see for ourselves how mechanical we are now; appreciate the need to get out of prison. We have to learn to notice the prison bars – existing beliefs, attitudes, habits, private agendas of various kinds, out of date ways of thinking & doing – all the restrictions on possible alternative action that we choose to impose on ourselves. Once we have accepted that we are in prison an important way out is to come to terms with the idea that there are many different ways of behaving; the next snag is that we must accept that each way will be managed by a different ‘I’. That’s a problem in itself because we all have within us an ‘I’ that leaps up and down screaming, “Rubbish!” Making-a-snap-response-I, perhaps – a well-rehearsed expert at not listening to an argument. But first of all there’s the fundamental difficulty of adjusting to the idea that we are in prison. The ‘I’ that imagines it’s already free as a bird will almost certainly never get there. And so on.
We have to find out who the sentries are who parade night and day to keep us in the prison of single unified ‘I’; we need to work to develop genuine friendships with them, seeing that they do have a positive intention for us – they keep guard over our constant waywardness. They are part of us.
I find that going into a notional prison with a fictional character alerts me to practise coming to terms with my own real life prison conditions; then sorting them out in the light of all the metaphorical pre-suppositions contained in the concrete exigencies of fictional prison-life. All life’s a fiction anyway.
Arnold Bennett goes on:-
You [may] say: “I know all that. But it is not so easy to translate literature into life.” And I admit freely that when I think of the time I have wasted in reading masterpieces, I stand aghast. The explanation is simple. Idleness, intellectual sloth, is the explanation. If you were invited to meet a great writer, you would brace yourself to the occasion. You would say to yourself: “I must keep my ears open, and my brain wide awake, so as to miss nothing.” You would tingle with your own bracing of yourself. But you – I mean we – will sit down to a great book as though we were sitting down to a [nut roast & mustard pickle] sandwich. No sense of personal inferiority in us! No mood of resolve! No tuning up of the intellectual apparatus! But just a casual, easy air, as if saying to the book : “Well, come along, let’s have a look at you!” What is the matter with our reading is casualness, languor, preoccupation. We don’t give the book a chance. We don’t put ourselves at the disposal of the book. It is impossible to read properly without using all one’s engine-power. If we are not tired after reading, common sense is not in us. How should one grapple with a superior and not be out of breath?
To put it in Gurdjieff’s brilliant roundabout way, if you’re going to get more than a cosy kind of thrill from the experience, a ‘certain something else’ is required when you’re reading a book – ‘all one’s engine-power’, perhaps, something that makes us ‘out of breath’, has us hurtling towards a state of being intellectually knackered.
In another little anecdote, Arnold Bennett addresses the business of FATIGUE:-
I scarcely felt tired in the morning. The day before might have been just an ordinary day. Only I had a queer ‘full’ feeling in the head. And I was irritable and gloomy. I searched for the cause of my gloom, and there was no cause. Moreover I had no real desire to conquer my gloom. Its cause must have been physical. After lunch I was profoundly aware of my fatigue. I slept an hour. I could have slept longer, but I got up. With satisfaction I felt that I had had a sleep. Then tea and a cigar. I meant to work, but I perceived that I was too tired to work; my head was too ‘full’. I lay down again and read, and slept three-quarters of an hour. It was at this point, when the fatigue was nearly but not quite dissipated…, that I began to have fine sensations. A perception that my gloom was passing; what a wonderful thing life was; an intensified consciousness of myself as an existing organism. Still, there remained a slight ‘fullness’ of the head; a pressure at two points right and left of the crown. Withal a kind of enjoyment of these remains of fatigue, knowing that they would soon be gone. And a physical pleasure in the half-fatigued realisation of my being ; a looking-forward to the next activity; a calm resting. All this passed off when I arose, but not the memory of it.
I have often found that the simple act of opening a book to read a page at random – a book of philosophy, poetry, a well-loved familiar tract or even some notebook of one’s own – will serve to re-assemble the neurons in some unexpected and rejuvenating way. But one has to have had the experience to understand the process. Once you imagine you’ve understood the process you already change the nature of the experience – it’s systemic:-
We had the experience but missed the meaning
And approach to the meaning restores the experience
In a different form beyond any meaning
We can assign to happiness… (Eliot: Four Quartets)
From my experience, not a lot of people are willing to put themselves out in this convoluted way as Arnold Bennett points out at the end of TRANSLATING LITERATURE INTO LIFE:-
…even if we read with the whole force of our brain, and do nothing else, common sense is still not in us, while sublime conceit is. For we are assuming that, without further trouble, we can possess, co-ordinate, and assimilate all the ideas and sensations rapidly offered to us by a mind greater than our own. The assumption has only to be stated in order to appear in its monstrous absurdity. Hence it follows that something remains to be done. This something is the act of reflection. Reading without subsequent reflection is ridiculous; it is a proof equally of folly and of vanity. Further, it is a sign of undue self-esteem to suppose that we can grasp the full import of an author’s message at a single reading. I would not say that every book worth reading once is worth reading twice over. But I would say that no book of great and established reputation is read till it is read at least twice. You can easily test the truth of this by reading again any classic.
Gurdjieff advises reading his monumental Beelzebub at least three times; the next time I read it will be the fourth time; I’ve still not plumbed its depths. How many times has Will Mesa read it?
I’ve read Moby Dick & Germinal & Journey to the East & Glass Bead Game & Trout Fishing in America each several times.
There are some books that throw poems & haiku at me – found poems & found haiku. There’s always something special about such books that causes me to reflect in this way. It’s a very rewarding way of TRANSLATING LITERATURE INTO LIFE.
Here are haiku found in Arnold Bennett’s Things that Have Interested Me:-
with a long rod on a dark rock
– seething waters
tinkering at his house
like a suburban dweller
in the rain with strange toes
sticking out of straw shoes
at the dance
fair simple creatures
in their best hotel frocks
officials unlock barriers
with magic keys
distant violin –
same tune over & over
secret city life
And finally another nicely rounded gem:-
Another thing that can translate literature into life is to model on somebody else’s sense of humour.