Thursday, June 28, 2012

The house was quiet and the world was calm

by J J Cohen

[read Karl's fascinating post on lively carrion first]

My colleague Margaret Soltan has posted a beautiful meditation on a Wallace Stevens poem that, coincidentally, has been running through my head this week. The poem is about critical relations to inhabited spaces, creation, absorption, desire, worldliness, intimate ecologies, and meaning making. Its refrain ("The house was quiet and the world was calm") inhabits me because of its present truth. For the first time, both Katherine and Alex have gone to camp in West Virginia together. They departed Sunday for two weeks ... and the house is quiet and the world too calm. Like the reader in Stevens' poem I try to "become the book," to lose myself in work and thinking, but both reading and writing are difficult when domestic stillness stretches to such unaccustomed durations. I've accomplished things: "Ecomaterialism" is ready to go to press, my introduction to Prismatic Ecologies has come together well ... but, still.

I have also been pondering some lines from David Abram's book Becoming Animal, when he describes his realization that his house is angry after he returns from the hospital without his young daughter. The change in inhabitance disturbs the space. I read those lines somewhere over the Atlantic on my way back from Edinburgh and I rolled my eyes at them. This is the kind of psychological projection that a critic can get into so much trouble for indulging in. Yet Abram insists that his attunement to the house was not a projection, that lived space is a totality and when one of its bodies drops out of relation the whole system is off kilter, and that change is powerfully affective. I'm still not quite sure I believe that argument -- or, rather, I am not sure I can allow myself to say that I believe it. But I know that our house is quiet and its spaces too calm. Our home has become a place of long days of writing. There is creativity unfolding here, I hope, but something is palpably missing. That's why when Wendy comes home each evening we leave as quickly as we can -- out for dinner or a walk or both. The house is quiet and the world is calm. I'm sad (yes, I am very happy for Alex and Katherine who are having a great time at camp, but I am sad) and it feels like this house whose bustle is absent has become downcast.

Maybe this is my usual summer funk. But it feels different, deeper. I know that also means there's more possibility within it.

Like this home, I'm not much accustomed to quiet or to calm. I've been thinking about the observations Margaret excerpts from Martin Amis, about people being constantly on their phones because they do not like to be alone. Amis reads this unceasing electronic engagement as a symptom of a culture that has lost its ability to be introspective, lost its desire to self-commune. That hits home for me. There was a long period of my life when I craved solitude. Now, I am given a great deal of time alone (an academic life has moments of gregariousness but is inherently lonely; I am also at month twelve of eighteen months of leave, so I don't even have the classroom to anchor me) -- but I don't desire it as I once did. Seclusion can quickly become disconcerting. I don't even like traveling by myself as much as I once did. I try to be better about it, but still have a tendency to prevent solitary lulls. Yet I know that those private moments can be invigorating. I got one of my favorite blog posts out of a recent morning spent in Edinburgh by myself.

These have been hard days. I've been pondering a great deal the extent to which I really know myself, especially because a lesson of the past few months has been that I am more difficult to work with than I had supposed myself to be. I clearly need the time -- and the quiet house, and the calm world -- for some introspection, self communion, and maybe finding other ways to fill a house deprived of its children with community, with joy.

4 comments:

Stephanie Trigg said...

So much going on in this post.

First response is empathetic: I've just dropped Joel off at the winter Juilliard jazz camp. He'll be away for six days (in a building about 200 metres from my own office but a world away, absorbed in music: it's been the annual highlight of his jazz education, three years in a row, now). Our house, now, is quiet and dark in the early evening. We are kind of starting to get ready for his leaving home in a year or two; and will no doubt make efforts this week to fill the gap. We'll have breakfast in bed, I think; and perhaps go see a movie during the week. Not that his presence stops us doing anything of the kind; more that the last 17 years our daily routines have been shaped by what he needs, especially, if anything, in the last year of school. It's only little by little we let this happen, I think, allowing lives to be reshaped by our children, and then when that shaping force is no longer there, well then ... who are we in our houses, when we are not being interpellated as parents?

And I now realise that our neighbours (whose TWO kids have also gone to the same jazz camp) have invited us over for dinner tonight, ostensibly to eat leftovers from last night's 50th, but probably out of the same feeling of wanting to fill the house.

I've spent most of the day away from the computer: ironing, washing up, reading (the Mabinogion), visiting an exhibition of Persian manuscripts, as you do. I'm trying to be on facebook less. I'm trying not to let work expand to fill every moment of the day.

Do you think we might possibly be middle-aged, then?

Hard to know how to read your comments about thinking you are hard to work with. For the record, as a co-worker, I find it hard to imagine, quite frankly. There may be some quite simple misunderstanding here.

I think you have had storms and power-outages there? Nothing like candlelight to give you quiet, dark reflection...

May the house take a moment, too, to breathe and give you back something of yourself in these days.

Stephanie Trigg said...

So much going on in this post.

First response is empathetic: I've just dropped Joel off at the winter Juilliard jazz camp. He'll be away for six days (in a building about 200 metres from my own office but a world away, absorbed in music: it's been the annual highlight of his jazz education, three years in a row, now). Our house, now, is quiet and dark in the early evening. We are kind of starting to get ready for his leaving home in a year or two; and will no doubt make efforts this week to fill the gap. We'll have breakfast in bed, I think; and perhaps go see a movie during the week. Not that his presence stops us doing anything of the kind; more that the last 17 years our daily routines have been shaped by what he needs, especially, if anything, in the last year of school. It's only little by little we let this happen, I think, allowing lives to be reshaped by our children, and then when that shaping force is no longer there, well then ... who are we in our houses, when we are not being interpellated as parents?

And I now realise that our neighbours (whose TWO kids have also gone to the same jazz camp) have invited us over for dinner tonight, ostensibly to eat leftovers from last night's 50th, but probably out of the same feeling of wanting to fill the house.

I've spent most of the day away from the computer: ironing, washing up, reading (the Mabinogion), visiting an exhibition of Persian manuscripts, as you do. I'm trying to be on facebook less. I'm trying not to let work expand to fill every moment of the day.

Do you think we might possibly be middle-aged, then?

Hard to know how to read your comments about thinking you are hard to work with. For the record, as a co-worker, I find it hard to imagine, quite frankly. There may be some quite simple misunderstanding here.

I think you have had storms and power-outages there? Nothing like candlelight to give you quiet, dark reflection...

May the house take a moment, too, to breathe and give you back something of yourself in these days.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

I don't know if I cursed myself by complaining of the house's calm, but soon after posting this a horrible storm swept the DC area (among others), toppled neighborhood trees, and ensured that many of would have no power for days to come. A calm indeed -- but, given the heat, a stultifying one!

I think you are exactly right, Stephanie, to pick up on the midde-agedness of these musings. I am partly contemplating what it will be like to have Alex and then Katherine move away. The quite "allowing lives to be reshaped by our children" is exactly right, so that when they are missing everything resorts. This can be profoundly good, but also terribly disconcerting.

About my comments about being ahrd to work with ... I think that's something that can be true, but would like to think it isn't always true. I am probably most difficult as a co-editor, since I am fairly tightly wound when it comes to getting things done on a schedule, and am almost slavishly calendar-driven ... but who knows. Well there is more to say on that one but not right now!

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Maybe I am hard to work with because I am so typo prone and uncareful. ahrd = hard, above.