Language is meant to communicate, to get a point across. Perhaps also sometimes just to get something out, to express, to release some of that steam that builds up behind our eyes. We can be utilitarian in our language, try to say exactly what we mean in direct tones with simple meaning, but more often than not our feelings are more complicated than that. This is where we get into art and language and communication can get refined, yet also garbled. As we shape and express what we mean through whatever medium our art finds its expression in, it isn't usually just a simple single meaning that comes out. Had we meant a simple single meaning, why bother with art? Just make a sign and hang your message where the target will read it, or just say it straight out. As our intentions and feelings become more complex than just simple cause and effect, so too our forms of expression necessarily communicate complex feelings and messages. Of course, once it leaves our mind and enters the corporeal world, it isn't only up to the artist as to the meaning. We put what we can into something we create, but then the person who comes upon it takes from it according to what they see and what they've brought. It isn't only the creation of the art which completes it, it is also in the viewing. Finding a receptive audience is a talent in and of itself.
I'm prone to forget that everyone in an audience doesn't see the same work. Reading a book that hits on something I've felt but not known how to express always makes me want to share it with friends. I want to share what I've found, I want to discuss it with others, I want to dig in deeper. Some of this is just wanting to compare what we find and trying to see through different eyes. Some of it is just social and wanting to share things. Of course, sometimes there is the feeling that someone has communicated something that I couldn't or hadn't been able to before and sharing a reading feels like a way to let me make more sense to others: if they read this, they will understand what I mean, how I feel!
But we all read differently and each text has many messages. Coming from different directions, relating to different characters, we do not always find the same clarity in the same texts as our friends. Why am I reflecting on this now? Because I just read Nightwood.
There is something intriguing in the title, and I love the author's name. Djuna Barnes. I seem to have a certain predilection for names beginning with "Dj". I really wish I knew some Djunas and Djangos. I'm getting off track, just saying that there has been something compelling about the book that would have eventually pulled me to it, but I read it on recommendation. Ben had told me about it before and I had meant to pick it up and hadn't, so I finally decided to grab it off the shelf to be part of the traveling library that helps make this floating incarceration feel productive and less like a prison sentence. It was finally the right time to read it.
That it was the right time to read it was made all the more clear by Ben looking for it on the shelf and growling when he realized that I had taken it when he wanted to double check his remembrance of a passage for some of his commentary in his Facebook "25 things". Not that the right time to read it was when someone else wanted it (I'm not that spiteful, really) but rather that having read his comments on it and realizing how big an impact it had made on him brought it to the front of my mind and made it something that I wanted to read now. It was already in my mind and he had asked me to read it before; now the time was right to read it.
I think this also set me up for a certain confusion. Going into a book looking for someone you already know is a mission fraught with danger. We end up putting too much of our friends into the characters or too much of the characters into our friends and sometimes if we aren't careful we can distort and damage our reading.
This is particularly difficult for me. I'm an avid reader, but a brutal one. Even as I hated book reports in school, I've grown up doing one after another as a hobby. As anyone who has read much at all of what I write here knows, I've got strong opinions and a tendency to share them. I tend towards gushing or demolishing as my whims take me and often enough both about different aspects of the same thing. This is all good and well when it is just me talking about my experience with a piece of art, but what about when this is a thing you approached because it is emblematic for someone you love?
At the moment, I feel as if I am sort of through the looking glass, looking at the reverse of a scene I've been in before. On the other side of the mirror, I'm the one presenting the book which meant so much to me, so colored my world outlook that I felt compelled to share it and then eagerly awaited for it to be read and find myself understood and closer than ever. Of course, this is not how it worked out. I handed Ben Giovanni's Room, as I had handed it to friends before and as it had been handed to me. I devoured it in one night when I got it, reading as the remnants of a hurricane blew past where I waited it out in a safe inland retreat, crying tears openly (which is no great feat now, as I've become a little looser with my emotions and like a good cry anytime a book or movie warrants it, but then I was an uptight control freak who refused such silly human indulgences) and feeling destroyed and devastated by the book, but also hopeful. The book could be so tragic because there was this beautiful love story, that even if this love was doomed, the fact that it could exist, that it could be written down, that this story could make people cry was breathtaking to me. I felt like it was giving me permission to fall in love if I found it. Mason and Liz had made me read it, and I had made Michael read it (don't tell Liz, he still has her copy. I had to find an identical edition to replace it for her.) and made John read it and I don't know how many other people I forced it on. But we were all friends, in various states of tortured love (or not love). When I handed it to Ben, I handed it to someone I was in love with, who I was dating.
You may not know this, but significant others don't always take away the same thing from a tortured love story that you did when you read it years ago and lonely and single. The story told my younger self of the possibility for love and passion; to someone already in love it warns of tragedy and hopelessness. So when he finally read it, Ben seemed somewhat horrified. Why did I want him to read that story? What was I trying to say? I was so flabbergasted that I didn't really know how to respond. Wasn't it beautiful? He said it was sad. Of course it was sad, and beautiful too, but because it wasn't just a book he was reading, rather a message from me, he couldn't just breathe in the beautiful. He went into it looking for me and probably also himself in relation to me and then he finds two people destroyed by each other and the society around them. They fall profoundly in love, and one becomes more jealous and desperate and falls to pieces before being executed and the other retreats in fear and grasps for traditional roles before falling haunted into exile. Was this what I saw as an ideal relationship? Was this how I saw us?
No and no, of course, but it is impossible to take in something brought to us by someone singing its praises and saying how much it has influenced who they are without looking for them in it, and also perhaps a little of what this says about how we fit into their life. So now it is my turn, and I try to look back through and remember his bafflement and then mine too.
At the beginning, I really liked Nightwood. The descriptions are incredibly rich and there is this strangely detailed breakneck pace racing your through a bizarre, but detailed background. You fly straight through one generation in no time. In an odd way, the laying of the groundwork reminded me of Amelie.
I shouldn't have said "At the beginning." I liked the book, when I backed away from my personal quest of finding Ben and I in it. It is a beautiful book and the characters are vivid and compelling. But I've a vicious critic of books and characters. I always have been and not in a particularly generous or forgiving way. When my mother would watch soap operas when I was a kid, I remember thinking how stupid everyone it is was. If they would just explain themselves instead of weaving these complicated lies their lives would be so much easier. I've gotten a little more understanding as I've aged, but only a little bit. And as much as I relish giggling at drama in real life, I've got a low tolerance for feeling like it has been cultivated, in real life or written worlds. I suppose this was my great intolerance with soap operas: there wasn't actually any drama except what was actively cultivated by all these vapid people. They had no real problems, just made some and carefully coached them along.
I don't mean to be so dismissive; Nightwood was certainly not Days of Our Lives. The writing is lush, the characters compelling and vivid and believable. Still, there is a certain flavor of tortured love that I don't really love that you can find in here. Doomed love, I can handle, but just plain old tortured love doesn't really do it for me. There is this feeling that to a certain extent the tortured want their love to tortured, that by traumatizing it that it becomes more real or something. This doesn't inspire sympathy in me, it makes me want to pull my hair out and scowl.
If you've read this book, you are probably scowling at me now, wondering why I'm so dismissive and hostile. As I said earlier, Nightwood is not a soap opera, it is a beautiful book. The characters tug and tear at one another and talk over each other trying to make themselves heard, and there is a terrible lucidity in it all. Just reading the book, unburdened by personal association, I'd see that. I'd be more forgiving and gentle to each of the characters, because I wouldn't assume at the start that I was any of them. If Ben found himself in this book, then wouldn't I also be there too, because surely I'm in any story he is in, right? I rail against silly romanticism muddling the thinking and blurring meanings, but damn if I'm not guilty of the crimes I accuse.
It is still difficult not to ask who in the book am I when Ben reads it. If-we-were-who-would-we-be is my favorite game anyway. It just gets loaded when you think someone else has played it already and sees you hiding somewhere in a text. Who am I when I read it and do we think the other person sees us the same person? Who are they? And do we see them as that person because we like that character or is this an indictment?
I assume that there are two choices for who we are, since in the book there are two main lovers: Nora and Robin. There is also the interloper, Jenny, but we'll assume as a given that neither of us could be this character; the implications would just be too ugly to contemplate. I'd assume that Ben sees himself as Nora, but I have a hard time imagining that he sees me as Robin, even if I do like going out drinking and wandering through the night. Of course, comparing yourself to characters is an imperfect game. And only a game. I, nor you, are the the characters in the stories we read.
I assume this is the same mistake he made when he read us in Giovanni's Room. I didn't love the book because I thought I was either David or Giovanni. I love the whole book, the whole story, and listening in on their conversations and the indictments cast against them by other characters, I found things explained that helped me understand better what I was feeling and how to navigate in the world. I didn't look to it as a plan for success or what my ideal love life would look like. It informed my world view; it didn't replace it. I wonder that that was the miscommunication when I shared this with Ben: he went in looking for us or a message from me to him.
Now I find myself fighting this same instinct with Nightwood. Even knowing this is a mistake and not why Ben told me about the book and wanted me to read it, I still couldn't help looking for us in it and being irrationally critical of the characters, thinking "I would never do that!" So I back up a little, relax, try again.
The writing is so beautiful it leaves me jealous. Even not imagining myself as the characters, they still irritate me somewhat, though flashes of brilliance shine through in their speeches. The character of the doctor is of particular interest (had this book not been recommended by a lover, he is the character I would have picked as myself: meddlesome, know-it-all, talkative). Interestingly enough, both of our emblematic books are set in Paris amongst gay expatriates and in roughly the same time period.
Perhaps I've written in enough circles about all this. I've just had to coach myself out of this trap and back into (somewhat) objective readership.