This is the sky above me as I attempt some writing at a local cafe. As the words are not flowing, I am allowing myself some creative procrastination that has come in the form of several unsent tweets, responding to overdue emails, and taking a minute to read again a few lines of an essay I just learned of by Italo Calvino. There may be a previous post that mentioned Amelie Rorty’s essay “The Ethics of Reading” in which she urges readers to consider the “author’s house” when reading the author’s words — to ask questions of the architecture of an author’s idea chambers, their histories and spatio-temporal connections. In a similar vein, Calvino, in the essay “Why Read the Classics?” very plainly, very transparently delineates his thinking about what has long been a contentious idea: classics. Or, more precisely, *the* classics.
Calvino writes about the moments when we first and then again engage in the reading of a classic, acknowledging not only that who we are shapes our readings, but also that in no way can everyone read everything “classical” and still keep current with the present moment’s goings-on. (Just today someone tweeted about Toni Morrison’s new book “Home” and I thought, “she has another one out? I haven’t finished all of the others!”) In his enumerated essay, Calvino writes:
4) Every rereading of a classic is as much a voyage of discovery as the first reading.
5) Every reading of a classic is in fact a rereading.
Voyage and discovery, the very art of getting lost and happily giving oneself over to the experience of reading — does that happen in our writing? He cleverly leaves open the question of what is a classic, saying only, “If the spark doesn’t come, that’s a pity; but we do not read the classics out of duty or respect, but only out of love. Except at school.” (except at school… sigh.)
Anne Lamott attempts to suggest something about this sense of discovery but it seems her words center more on the reading than the writing (in this excerpt at least):
“Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They depen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul. When writers make us shake our heads with the exactness of their prose and their truths, and even make us laugh about ourselves or life, our buoyancy is restored. We are given a shot at dancing with, or at least clapping along with, the absurdity of life, instead of being squashed by it over and over again. It’s like singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea. You can’t stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship.”
Oh, I see — when we assume postures as writers, we might potentially evoke singing on a boat caught in a storm, our words may be the ones to catalyze spontaneous clapping amidst the absurdity of life. It’s so simple: we must be readers when we write.
W.G. Sebald’s writing, which I have occasionally referenced here and which were the inspiration for Grant Gee’s film “Patience (After Sebald)”, is described in Gee’s film by the artist Tacita Dean in this way: “You don’t care you’re being led nowhere because you learn so much along the way.” Could there be any higher praise for one’s writing?
Well, I seem to say to myself on occasion, these are all good ideas to keep in mind. But can one hope to evoke laughter or inspire a jig in the midst of life when the text is a grant proposal and the reviewers are… well… reviewers, cut of the same cloth, perhaps, as those who have stripped schools of toe-tapping, silly clapping, garden path sentences and textual journeys of the unbelievable variety?