Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Utter solitude

First, the admission of a guilty pleasure: the Cohen family watches that parade of histrionics known as American Idol. Think of it as part of our program of studying human culture in order to better blend among this planet's indigenous population. Last night's episode ended with a young man who had left school and family a year earlier and was living in a car. I was surprised how touched my son was by this fact ("Do you think it's possible that his mom and dad didn't love him?" he asked us), and how it saddened him to realize that there could be someone like him living so alone: no friends, no family, just an automobile that serves as bed, kitchen and transportation. That kind of solitude struck him as unbearable.

As, in a way, it does me. There were lonely times during graduate school when I vanished into books and writing. I once went nearly twenty-four hours without speaking ... then again, that is the longest I've ever gone with mouth shut. A well known medievalist with whom I've collaborated has just emerged from three months of silent seclusion in a Buddhist monastery. That kind of unbroken quiet is not something I could ever want ... yet I do sometimes dream of such removal from the world and from social relations, probably because it is the exact opposite of anything I can actually endure.

Why do I bring all this up? Well, not just due to viewing melodramatic reality shows on the Fox network. A conversation that unfolded yesterday in my office has stuck with me. GW is fortunate in currently having as writer in residence Nadeem Aslam, a novelist whose work I have praised here before. His book Maps for Lost Lovers is so good that I stayed awake deep into every night in our London flat last summer devouring its pages. Nadeem stopped by yesterday to say a quick hello. I announced that I blamed him for two weeks of English insomnia. He sat down, and more than an hour later we emerged from the office after having had a conversation that ranged from nuclear warning devices to Obamamania to texts and memory to the place of artists in contemporary society. Aslam is exactly the kind of quirky person for whom I always feel an immediate affection: someone who continually surprises you with insight and originality, but who also does not seem to be of this earth in the way as, say, people who watch or participate in American Idol.

Maps for Lost Lovers is gorgeously written and emotionally wrenching, eliciting a combination of affects that we've seen here at ITM in Dan's recent posts. The main characters of the book, a Pakistani family living in a version of London, evidently love each other ... but are incapable of expressing this warmth without utterly shattering the person to whom they wish to connect. This propensity to wound through miscalculated gestures especially haunts Kaukab, a mother who adores her children but who destroys them all the same. The scene that broke me is the following, in which Kaukab -- having worked for days on a feast that she hopes will unite her grieving family in the sharing of food, a repast which might make them for once forget the sins they have practiced against each other -- instead presides over a fraught and taciturn dinner table. As December coldness wraps itself around the house, the tension in the quiet room becomes unbearable: "The house, as it floated through time, has arrived at an iceberg, and no one is sure it will ever move away from it, leaving it behind." Kaukab excuses herself from this cold tableau that again defeats her inexpressible yearning for a family in which her love doesn't ruin lives:
When she goes upstairs to the bathroom immediately after Charag [her son] has been there to wash his face, she notices that the linoleum is warm where he had been standing just now, and she has to steady her heart with joyful fingers -- her cold house is full of her children again. There's warmth in unexpected places.

Except, there isn't. The very best for which Kaukab can ever hope is that small spot of warmth lingering on the linoleum in the absence of its bearer, a connection invisible to the person in whose "touch" she exults.
Kaukab has already ensured that her children will never know that she has a heart capable of affection, or fingers that can tremble with joy. Charag, especially, is filled with vitriol for a mother he believes has hurt him beyond remedy.

I told Nadeem that it was the small detail of human heat imprinted on cold flooring that made the scene for me, and broke me emotionally: it so well condenses the unsolvable predicament of Kaukab. He looked at me very seriously, and then said, "You have made me realize that I was writing about my own chosen loneliness. As I finished the book -- a book that took eleven years to compose! -- I isolated myself from the world. For six months I had no phone, no email, I didn't really even speak. At some point in this intense period my little brother came to visit me. I remember that I went to the loo after he did, and when I stood on the floor where he had just been standing to pee, I realized from the heat what it is like to have someone in your house, and in your life, and yet not to have them at all."

I asked Nadeem if he ever regretted the sacrifices he had made to compose Maps For Lost Lovers. He told me that the minute I labeled them sacrifices I showed that I misunderstood: art demanded his time and his life, and it was his honor (he used that word) to be able to give both. That's not nearly as vainglorious as statement as it seems: Nadeem is quite modest, and very much aware that he would not have been able to compose the work without a strong social system behind him (friends willing to buy him dinners or lend a coach to crash on, the dole, small arts grants). Still, he has at times embraced a solitude beyond anything I can imagine.

I would have made a terrible anchorite.

[PS For one of my student's experience of Nadeem Aslam, see this]


Eileen Joy said...

This is a beautiful post, and I very much want to read Nadeem's book. My sister, by the way, once lived in a Datsun B210 in which the front passenger seat had been removed so that a board could be placed between the front and back seat and used as a bed. She lived in this car while working as a tree planter for a company that made diapers and other paper-based products: they were committed to re-forestation of areas they had devastated and my sister was paid three cents for every pine tree sapling she planted. She took this job because she was trying to get into the Peace Corps by demonstrating that she had certain "practical" skills--it worked, but the irony was that she was ultimately contracted as an AIDS educator (in the Central African Republic), not as a forestry or agriculture worker.

I am a very gregarious person who, for most of my life, has never really liked being alone, but ever since I left my partner and daughter in S. Carolina in 2002 to take a job at the University of N. Carolina-Asheville and then at Southern Illinois, I have mainly lived on my own [except for the summers and winter holidays]. I spend many many quiet days and evenings by myself and I find that it makes me a bit psychotic. I must admit that I get a lot of work done, but sometimes I wonder if it is worth it. I agree with Nadeem that it is an honor to devote oneself to art, and to making things that, hopefully, are beautiful, but I also know firsthand that to really commit to the process, you *do* have to become somewhat inhuman, or at least eschew sensual human contact.

Incidentally, Jeffrey, your remark of how broken up you were by the "the small detail of human heat imprinted on cold flooring" in Nadeem's novel reminded me of a similar moment in Arundahati Roy's "The God of Small Things": as the mother is dying in a derelict hotel, the only sound in her room is that of the legs of a cockroach scuttling-rasping across the floor. It's a small detail, but a devastating one.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Interestingly enough, Nadeem spoke of the affinity he feels towards Roy's work, and the rage that she expresses through it at social structures gone badly wrong and forcing people into the wounding of the self and others. He contrasted this view with Ian McEwan, for whom trauma is much more individualized -- and for whom the atonement of his recent book title can happen at a personal rather than communal level.

Steve Muhlberger said...

11:36 AM and this is already the best thing I'm going to read today. Or maybe this week.

Steve Muhlberger said...

Well, then I read this:

Karl Steel said...

Nice post, and good to be reminded of this guy's work.

He contrasted this view with Ian McEwan, for whom trauma is much more individualized -- and for whom the atonement of his recent book title can happen at a personal rather than communal level.

That's a fascinating distinction and one I'm going to have to think about in relation to all the McEwan I used to read in the mid-90s (the film Atonement, BTW? Try to watch it without the music, if possible. It's like having a yak behind you, bawling on your shoulders).

As for making a lousy Anchorite: I'm remembering an article on the social function of Anchorites that I read for a Christina of Markyate paper, and irrc, they were often centers of news and gossip, pillars, you might say, of their community. In other words, you would have made a great anchorite; a lousy hermit, yes, but an anchorite? Not so bad, so long as you had a friendly priest to pass you books.

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