Reading is Not About Constructing Your Identity
It seems like saying “I like this” and “I don’t like that” is the be-all and end-all of criticism to my seventeen-year old self. He is irritating and endearing to me in equal measure. I rescued him from ice-bound Amsterdam and pulled him into the garden thirty-five years in the future to save him from the horror of the banality of the futility of school.
“How’s it going at school?” I ask him.
“OK,” he says.
“OK? Maybe I am misremembering this but I remember vast acreages of boredom and pointlessness.”
“Don’t do that, please,” he whines.
“Do what? I’m just trying to gel what I remember with what you are experiencing.”
He looks at me through his cheap wire frame glasses. “I know what you are doing,” he says, “and I appreciate that it is important for you as a fifty-one-year-old to know where you came from, but I’m not your dad, no matter what Wordsworth says. I can’t help you.”
“Funny that,” I say. “I thought I was helping you.”
We have curved down the lane and are approaching the house. We are at the navel of my world, the vegetable garden I built with C. As we approach the sparrows take startled flight into the apple tree and then swoop chittering off towards the yew in the far garden. Two blackbirds play hide-and-seek for a few moments on the paths then disappear off into the elm trees that border the upper field. We come across Peter the Painter, who is admiring the cabbages.
“Hi Peter,” I say. “Fancy another beer?”
“I don’t think I do,” he says. “That friend of yours- Andrew- is a character, isn’t he? He tells me that everything is predestined.”
“There is a destiny that shapes our ends rough-hew them how we will,” my seventeen-year-old self chirps.
“Sure,” I mutter turning away.
Robin Grace Thompson as Cassandra in Deus Ex Machina
“But, what I don’t get is this,” Peter the Painter continues, ignoring me, “you brought us here. That makes you the deus ex machina. If anyone has any choices here, it is you. Andrew may say that these events are working out an inevitable pattern, that from the minutest level to the grandest there are inevitabilities at work. That doesn’t mean that from time to time there aren’t different individuals at the helm. You are steering the boat right now, aren’t you?”
“Am I?” I say. “It doesn’t feel like that. It feels like I am making a mess of things all over again. It feels like I am consumed with worries and indecisions and that I don’t know what I want or need- neither for myself nor for Seventeen.”
“Indecisions are no different from decisions,” Seventeen says.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, take girls.” I look at Peter and we both roll our eyes. “No, seriously,” he says. “Take girls. If you are indecisive that will have just as much effect as if you are decisive. I’ve seen it happen. Decisive dickheads get the girl. No question. I’ve seen it happen. And if you can’t decide what to do when you are in that position, of, um, of critical importance when you know she is waiting for you to say something as simple as, ‘I like you’ and you can’t bring yourself to say it… All I am saying is that the indecision that leads to inaction has just as many effects as the decision that leads to action.”
“You’ve got a point there,” Peter says. “So, the question is to find the root of this indecision. Where does it come from?”
“Andrew says there is nothing you can do about it,” I put in. “He is scornful of self-improvement. He says you have your personality because of your genetics and your environment and there is precious little you can do about it.”
“But that doesn’t make any sense,” Seventeen says. “Man hands on misery etc., even unto the seventh generation blah-di-blah. You don’t need science to get to that conclusion. But this conversation is part of the environment, isn’t it? I mean, we are here and this is affecting us. To deny that wouldn’t be common-sense.”
“Right! We are here.” Peter takes a deep breath and looks around him. One of the half-dozen small-holders who live in the village is coming down the slope with a mini-tractor loaded with cow manure and waves across. We all wave back at him. “We are also affecting him. Imagine when he was a kid. This wouldn’t have happened then, would it? Oh no.”
“Andrew is always telling me that superficial investigations of causes are faulty,” I say.
“Yes,” says Peter, “but I have a feeling that, if we don’t work out why we are here we will not get out of a repetitive loop and we will be pre-destined to carry on forever.”
“The serpent biting its tail,” Seventeen says, “The Hermeneutic Circle.”
I wince. “That is annoying,” I say.
Seventeen has a teenager’s way of saying something that sounds smart but just comes across as smart-arse to me. The problem is that I know all the situations he will get into. He wants to get laid. That urgency is there in the way he stands, the way he talks and the way he postures. He has a point.
“What? What do you mean? What did I say?” he splutters.
“I mean it is annoying how you always pull things back to some kind of superficial smart-Alecky reference to something else and refuse to admit what it is all really about.”
“I think you are being unfair,” Peter the Placater tries to say. “Aren’t we here to sort out what it is all really about? You can’t blame yourself for going about that business in your own way.”
“I guess not,” I say and sit down on a log.
They wander off together towards the house. Seventeen is hungry… of course. I see them chatting about whether you can draw with a paintbrush and run through the decisions in my life. I am in Spain because of a sequence of events that were entirely unrelated to the little universe of my own existence. A possibility arose to ditch chemistry and study Spanish aged thirteen. They offered the option that year because they had the staff. They were not thinking about me and what I might do with it. If there had been a Russian teacher I might be in Russia now. Consequences cascaded from this fortuitous event all through my personal history to bring me here to the garden, the centre of the world. It seemed at the time that I was deciding, but the forces that brought that moment of decision to the inevitable point of giving birth to that action were already in motion a long time before I made the “decision”. I was not the master of my own destiny.
The Mullion Window
I remember noticing for the first time that the window I liked to look through with its leaded glass panes was set in a mullion frame of gritty stone that carried the centuries of its history in the open pores of its surface. I sat on the wooden bench beside the window and looked out through the distorting glass with a peculiar sense of melancholy at the shafting rain as it pounded the bushes. The mullion is pregnant with significance, it will never cease to be a significant mullion; it is not my insight that makes me able to appreciate the mullion but the accident of geography and of birth. I was born in a place where the mullion existed.
The seventeenth-century metaphysical poets looked through mullion windows onto formal gardens where dewdrops on roses captured the entire significance of the universe. They were doing the same as I was. There was a common experience of looking through imperfect glass. In that modern city where children grow up looking through double-glazed sliding panel windows, will they have the appreciation of a mullion, or will it seem like a quaint something you can see in Heritage sites or cutesy medieval paintings?
Other environments breed other meanings. The Zen monk looked out from the balcony at the rain slashing the broad-leafed basho tree and felt the world was drenched in significance that could only be condensed in the formal structure of those verses the haiku masters condensed from the air around them. And later, in a twentieth-century suburb of Tokyo, a teenager who grew up in a house where the walls of the john were plastered bamboo notices, after an earthquake shakes the surface loose, that there is a lattice to this house that survived the firebombs and destruction of the war. It is his mullion window.
You like what you like. What more is there?