Friday, January 18, 2008

Readings: Contemplating Polarities

In concluding my last post I wrote that I would be sharing some more of J. M. Coetzee’s opinions from his novel, Diary of a Bad Year. Since, however, I am now deep into a new novel, House of Meetings, by the British writer, Martin Amis, I’ve lost the fire in my belly for continuing to dwell upon Coetzee. What I’m going to do, then, is post one brief excerpt from Diary of a Bad Year that has to do with birdsong, followed by an excerpt from the Amis novel in which birdsong is mentioned in a totally opposite context.

Here is the Coetzee, which I find particularly beautiful:

What Cartesian nonsense to think of birdsong as pre-programmed cries uttered by birds to advertise their presence to the opposite sex, and so forth! Each bird-cry is a full-hearted release of the self into the air, accompanied by such joy as we can barely comprehend. I! says each cry: I! What a miracle!

Briefly, House of Meetings takes place in Russia. The protagonist and narrator is a survivor of a gulag, as is his half-brother. The narrator, after his release, comes to terms with the system and does quite well financially. His brother, who has the soul of a poet, paradoxically has less success on the outside than he had in the work camp.

In the excerpt below, the protagonist visits the home of the poetically-inclined, misfit brother, just after the brother’s much doted-upon son has been killed in the November 3, 1982 explosion in the Soviet-built Salang Tunnel in the Hindu Kush, where he had been serving as a Russian soldier in the invasion of Afghanistan:

I got to the house on the day after the telegram. All the blinds were drawn. You may wonder how I had the leisure to do it, but I thought of Wilfred Owen: ‘And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.’ He was picturing a bereaved household (or a near-infinite series of such households) in the ‘sad shires’—October 1917. The drawn blind was an acknowledgement and a kind of signal. But the stricken need the dark. Light is life and is unbearable to them – as are voices, birdsong, the sound of purposeful footsteps. And they are themselves ghosts, and seek an atmosphere forgiving of ghosts, and conducive to the visits of other ghosts, or of one particular ghost.
For as long as I could bear it I sat with them in the shadows.

Does not the contrast between the totally polar human reactions to the simple song of a bird, as expressed in these two brief passages, show how entirely dependent upon our personal psychology, our mood, our disposition, is our world-view at any given moment? And does this not show how important it is for us to struggle against giving in to negative emotion?

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