Friday, September 26, 2014

`Presences As Well As Meanings'

Indulge me as I play the game of dividing the world’s writers into two categories: those indifferent or hostile to language and those for whom it’s candy, a toy or at least an absorbing pastime. At work I spend many hours reading the words of engineers and mathematicians who find language an impertinence. They think in numbers, vectors and joules. Written words are inefficient and slow them down, and organizing sentences becomes a laborious act of translation. Such impatience with language is hardly limited to scientists. Think of the novelists, poets and other literary types who treat words like cold oatmeal, stirring it in the bowl with little enthusiasm. Why work if you don’t like your tools? 

In the nineteen-eighties, the late John McGahern wrote a previously unpublished scrap of essay, “Playing with Words,” collected in Love of the World: Essays (Faber and Faber, 2009). McGahern is the finest Irish fiction writer after Beckett, a writer not without humor but a serious man. His prose is starkly elegant and not at all artsy-fartsy. His thoughts here are a surprise: 

“As with most serious things, it began in play, playing with the sounds of words, their shape, their weight, their colour, their broken syllables; the fascination that the smallest change in any sentence altered all the words around it, and that they too had to be changed in turn. As in reading, when we become conscious that we are no longer reading romances or fables or adventure but versions of our own life, so it suddenly came to me that while I seemed  to be playing with words in reality I was playing with my own life. And words, for me, have always been presences as well as meanings. Through words I could experience my own life with more reality than ordinary living.” 

That’s it: writers live twice, and often more intensely as a result, in their bodies and again in their words. Some experiences remain incomplete until articulated in language artfully arranged. McGahern says he has no interest in arguing about either religion (he refers to Hume) or art. He writes: 

“Most good writing, and all great writing, has a spiritual quality that we can recognize but never quite define. In his wonderful little piece on Chateaubriand, Proust recognized this quality both by its presence—the blue flower on the earth—and its absence from the more worldly glittering prose of diplomat and traveler. Call it moral fragrance or style or that older healing word—magic.”

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