Thursday, 4 February 2010

Break On Through To The Other Side

Rascal/sage Gurdjieff’s friend Pogossian never stood still; he was always snapping his fingers and swinging his arms, because he said, the organism was naturally lazy and he needed to keep it accustomed to work. I’m sure most of us recognise this; work is a habit that has to be acquired through repetition, not just in writing Fiction Books but even in simply reading them.

How often have I passed over a more challenging tome, letting my fingers grasp instead something that I know will slip down so much more easily? We all get tired, but to return to Gurdjieff, we too easily forget what lies on the other side of tiredness; if we make what he called ‘super effort’, then a second wind arrives and we break through to what seems almost another state of being. This is surely every bit as true of intellectual effort as any other. A little more mental exertion and we taste delights that the shallower waters of literature cannot afford. (A little further exertion and we may even achieve the blessed state of non-mixed metaphorishness…)

Critic Harold Bloom is one of the most outspoken champions of this: ‘all strong poetry is difficult’ he says, and he also proselytises on behalf of Finnegan’s Wake. I have my doubts (see previous Fiction Books post, ‘Versus Verse’) but deep down I know he’s right. Not necessarily, specifically, about the Wake (not for all of us, anyway), but about strength and pleasure. ‘We read to enlarge a solitary existence’ is another of his tenets, and I know without question that the long struggle I had with Shakespeare was more than worthwhile and has greatly enlarged this existence (though perhaps not as fundamentally as the Bloomster might claim). No matter how seductive the superlative comic art of Gene Colan can be, the words it supports will not bear more than the most superficial scrutiny. If we want the rewards, the enrichment of the heart and mind and soul that is almost like being in love (to coin a phrase), we must challenge ourselves.

I wonder if this only follows the pattern of the universe as a whole. Creation, the Advaitic tradition says, is only God hiding from Himself – because without the effort involved in seeing through the illusion of the material world, all that Doing that needs to be done, He cannot really appreciate what it is to simply Be. (Please excuse masculine gender used for simplicity's sake!)It is obviously true that effort makes us appreciate things (except that I would be happier to find £20 floating down the street than to have worked for it – I wonder what that might say about money?); the best literature, the ‘hardest’ literature, may go one better and make us appreciate everything - remind us what it is to be alive.

Now, where did I put that Essential Fantastic Four...?

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