Wednesday, June 27, 2018

The feeling of only half understanding

While it's true that, as Tolstoy observed, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, and everyone on planet Earth, vale of tears that it is, is certainly entitled to the specificity of his or her suffering, one nonetheless likes to think that literature has the power to render comprehensible different kinds of unhappiness. If it can't do that, what's it good for?
Batuman is a joy to read. She's funny, smart, and sincere. The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, by Elif Batuman, takes the reader from Stanford to Samarkand by way of Russia.

A familiarity with Russian literature is not required to appreciate this memoir, though if you understand the mindset of what it is to revel in these thick and intricate Russian worlds, so much the better.

However, for example, I've never read Babel, to whom the whole of chapter one is devoted; but I think I might want to read Babel now ("Whenever Babel meets anyone, he has to fathom what he is. Always "what," not "who."). I have no knowledge of the Uzbek language or its literature, and I'm quite convinced that it's not necessary for me to pursue the topic further. So I guess what you need to bring to this book is an openness to hearing the stories of people who pursue literature, and its more obscure aspects, as a field of study.

(The scholars seem to agree that Babel lived life as a source of material. I suppose a lot or writers are "guilty" of this.)
I became aware of a deep flaw in my understanding of the world and human knowledge. I had previously thought of knowledge as a network of connections that somehow preserved and safeguarded the memory of what they were connecting. But of course it was only people who remembered things; words and ideas themselves had no memory. The Uzbek language truly was related to both Turkish and Russian, by either genetic origin or secondary contact... but that didn't make it a reconciliation between the two. When you studied Uzbek, you weren't learning a history or a story; all you were learning was a collection of words. And the larger implication was that no geographic location, no foreign language, no pre-existing entity at all would ever reconcile "who" you were with "what" you were, or where you came from with what you liked.
What may not be obvious about The Possessed, even though Batuman states it clearly, more than once, is that it's about love. The state of being possessed has love at its core. "What is it you love, when you're in love?" This is difficult enough to answer when the object of love is a person — their body, their soul, their attributes, their worldly goods. But when love's target is more abstract, so too are its defining characteristics. What do you love when you love a language or a literature or a body of work?

Batuman exposes some of the tedium and absurdity of academia. But through it all there is love and joy!
When I came back from Samarkand, I almost entirely lost the ability to read poetry. It was like a language I didn't speak anymore. What I used to enjoy in poetry was precisely the feeling of only half understanding — a feeling that is intensified, as Tolstoy once observed, when the poetry is written in a foreign language:

Without entering into the meaning of each phrase you continue to read and, from the few words that are comprehensible to you, a completely different meaning arises in your mind — unclear, cloudy, and not in accord with the original phrasing, but all the more beautiful and poetic. For a long time, the Caucasus was for me this poem in a foreign language; once I deciphered its true meaning, there were many cases in which I missed the poem I had invented, and many cases in which I believed the real poem was better than the imaginary one.

After Samarkand, the beauty of cloudy, poetical meanings conjured out of associations and half-grasped words — the beauty of things that don't appear on the page — somehow lost its charm for me. From that point on I was interested only in huge novels. I started researching a dissertation on the hugeness of novels, the way they devour time and material. And although I suppose it's just coincidence that Tolstoy compared the subjective charms of half-understood poetry to the Caucasus in particular, nonetheless, I was finished with them, too — with the Caucasus, the Russian East, and the literatures of the peripheries.
Meanwhile, I have lost the ability to read fiction, I hope only temporarily. Between salving my heart, confessing my soul to paper, and walking — the endless walking — fiction has become an interference, reading an irritation. Sigh.


Review: Salon
The fact that I could never quite understand what was going on put me off of Russian novels; for Batuman, it's a prime attraction.

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