Last week I drafted a short piece in my notebook about other people, namely my aversion to them. Today I read a passage in Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet that puts my piece to shame. This from Pessoa:
Isolation made me in its own image. The presence of another person — one person is all it takes — immediately slows down my thinking … When I am alone, I can come up with endless bon mots, acerbic ripostes to remarks no one has made, sociable flashes of wit exchanged with no one; but all this disappears when I’m confronted by another human being. I lose all my intelligence, I lose the power of speech, and after a while all I feel like doing is sleeping. Yes, talking to people makes me feel like sleeping. Only my spectral and imagined friends, only the conversations I have in dreams, have reality and substance, and in them the spirit is present like an image in a mirror.
The whole idea of being forced into contact with someone oppresses me. A simple invitation to supper from a friend produces in me an anguish difficult to put into words. The idea of any social obligation — going to a funeral, discussing something with someone at the office, going to meet someone (whether known or unknown) at the station — the mere idea blocks that whole day’s thoughts and sometimes I even worry about it the night before and sleep badly because of it. Yet the reality, when it comes, is utterly insignificant, and certainly doesn’t justify so much fuss, yet it happens again and again and I never learn.
‘My habits are those of solitude, not men.’ I don’t know if it was Rousseau or Senancour who said that, but it was some spirit belonging to the same species as me.
Roads are made, streets are made, services are improved, electric light turns night into day, water is brought from reservoirs a hundred miles off in the mountains — all the while the landlord sits still. Every one of those improvements is affected by the labor and cost of other people and the taxpayers. To not one of these improvements does the land monopolist contribute, and yet, by every one of them the value of his land is enhanced. He renders no service to the community, he contributes nothing to the general welfare, he contributes nothing to the process from which his own enrichment is derived…The unearned increment on the land is reaped by the land monopolist in exact proportion, not to the service, but to the disservice done.
— Winston Churchill, 1909
If no one reads me,
have I wasted my time, entertaining myself for so many idle hours with such useful and agreeable thoughts? … I have no more made my book than my book has made me — a book consubstantial with its author …
Have I wasted my time by taking stock of myself so continually, so carefully? For those who go over themselves only in their minds and occasionally in speech do not penetrate to essentials in their examination as does a man who makes that his study, his work, and his trade, who binds himself to keep an enduring account, with all his faith, with all his strength.
Indeed, the most delightful pleasures are digested inwardly, avoid leaving any traces, and avoid the sight not only of the public but of any other person.
— Michel de Montaigne
The novel subjects itself to its own limits and at the same time opens itself up to an exploration of depths that are within and without (the writer) and that only (the writer) was meant to discover. You’re writing even when you don’t write. Narrative imagination does not feed on what is invented; It feeds on the past. Every minor or trivial event that one experiences or discovers in the course of an investigation can be valuable or even decisive for the novel, occupying a minimal but precise place within it, like an uneven cobblestone …
… The novel has developed on its own with the unlimited richness of reality and the blank spaces I haven’t been tempted to fill, spaces in the shadows that cannot be illuminated …
…The novel is what I write and also the room where I work. The novel is the fine-point pen that ran out of ink one day when I wrote for five or six hours without stopping and filled an entire notebook. The novel is made with everything I know and everything I don’t know, and with the sensation of groping my way through this story but never finding a precise narrative outline.
— Antonio Muñoz Molina, Like a Fading Shadow. Translated by Camilo A. Ramirez. Published by Editorial Planeta, S.A., 2014. Translation copyright 2017 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York.
Windows closed to cold and wind
single candle flame blinking
reading in these conditions
can lead to blindness
but not reading
is a blindness more total
The phone vibrated on the sink, startling me. I lay sweating on the bathroom floor in the dark. A faint halo emanated from the device and illuminated the room. I looked up at the walls, the ceiling. Fire razed my guts. It was night, it was night out there in the world. The phone buzzed. What had I done? I tried to push myself up, hands slipping in the contents of my stomach, now cold. A shot of lightning flashed at the window, briefly illuminating the revolting scene. I rose to my knees, then staggered afoot. My shirt was soaked through. Half-digested tablets and capsules cracked beneath my feet. I stripped nude and lay atop the bed, shaking, my hair wet. I struggled beneath the covers. What I remember next was the smell. I hadn’t smelled it before, or I wasn’t paying attention. It was all over me, all over the room. It was the air itself. I rose from the bed as each cell in my body protested. Daylight attacked the bedroom’s only window. A song entered my head — a Mexican folk song my grandmother sang when I was a child. Then it was only the music of her voice, whispering: I’ll be here when you wake.
Neither mood nor biology shifts according to a calendar. This body runs on its own time. The mind operates in several time zones at once. Electricity powers the heart. I eat almost nothing, fueled by liquids and books and nerves. Love, too.
I try to read the dictionary every day—at least a page. I wish I had the dedication of Malcolm X, who copied the dictionary repeatedly by hand to teach himself to read. He was in jail at the time, a petty criminal whose initial way to the light was religion. He learned that Allah’s message was a necessary truth that had somehow eluded him, had been stolen from his youth. This knowledge became an impetus to act, requiring more study. He became a teacher. His internal truth continued to evolve, much like the reader and the writer of these words.
To go into solitude, a man needs to retire as much from his chamber as from society. — Emerson
There’s a case, there’s a man and a case, and that man and his case penetrate time and space. Reader beware, keen reader beware, what you’re reading is rare and took care to prepare.