Saturday, September 20, 2014

Two short comedies on knowing oneself and being known by others (Books - The Uncommon Reader & The Laying on of Hands by Alan Bennett)

When Virginia Woolf collected her essays on the uses of reading (the Elizabethans, Montaigne, Austen, etc) in a volume she called The Common Reader in 1925, she commenced
There is a sentence in Dr. Johnson's Life of Gray which might well be written up in all those rooms, too humble to be called libraries, yet full of books, where the pursuit of reading is carried on by private people.  "...I rejoice to concur with the common reader; for by the common sense of readers, uncorrupted by literary prejudices, after all the refinements of subtilty and the dogmatism of learning, must be generally decided all claim to poetical honours."  It defines their qualities; it dignifies their aims; it bestows upon a pursuit which devours a great deal of time, and is yet apt to leave behind it nothing very substantial, the sanction of the great man's approval.

The common reader, as Dr. Johnson implies differs from the critic and the scholar.  He is worse educated, and nature has not gifted him so generously.  He reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others.  Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole - a portrait of a man, a sketch of an age, a theory of the art of writing...

Woolf's unassuming introduction to her essays is something of a pretense. Woolf as a woman of her time and of certain means, was meant to occupy herself with her appearance and her household.  She did not attend Cambridge like her brother, but her father's library permitted her to educate herself liberally, and her tongue is fully planted in her cheek in calling her opinions common while, at the same time publishing them. Remember that even in the hallucinations produced by Woolf's mental illness, the birds spoke in Greek.  Alan Bennett's novella The Uncommon Reader (Picador, 2007) continues the joke by imagining it's way into the experience of another reader possessed of no ordinary library, whose standing might be described as anything but humble, and whose life is among the least private of any person's on earth.  Yet for all that, she has acquired a habit, perhaps out of professional obligation, of not be too interested in any one thing more than another.

'What does Your Majesty like?'

The Queen hesitated, because to tell the truth she wasn't sure.  She'd never taken much interest in reading.  She read, of course, as one did, but liking books was something she left to other people.  It was a bobby and it was in the nature of her job that she didn't have hobbies.  Jogging, growing roses, chess or rock climbing, cake decoration, model aeroplanes.  No.  Hobbies involved preferences and preferences had to be avoided; preferences excluded people.  One had no preferences.  Her job was to take an interest, not to be interested herself.
It is in a travelling library (that's 'bookmobile' in American) in the City of Westminster that the Queen discovers not just the pleasure of reading, but the nature of her preferences.  Perhaps I was reading too much into what was simply meant to be a charming walk around in the Queen's shoes (with matching handbag) but I read this as the story of an outsider (as pretty much everything by Bennett is)  who has learned to subdue her own nature and preferences (in Bennett's own case this refers to his sexuality), and keep quiet about them so as to fulfill her role.  It is in the private act of imagination Bennett so loves because in it one is utterly free to be interested in whatever one wants.  This is a book about using that private practice to develop one's own opinion.  It is on the surface a light joke to have make that someone the Queen.  The word 'uncommon' does quadruple duty in referencing Johnson and Woolf, the stratum the Queen occupies in English society, her universal renown, and in describing that reading is not a frequent pastime for her.  There is a cheeky subversion in imaging the private thoughts of the Queen of England, yet at the same time I thought it acknowledged that the private and the public self are different for everyone and reading is a sort of leveler or, as the Queen comes to understand
Books did not defer.  All readers were equal, and this took her back to the beginning of her life. As a girl one of her greatest thrills had been on VE night when she and her sister had slipped out of the gates and mingled unrecognised with the crowds.  There was something of that, she felt, to reading.  It was anonymous; it was shared; it was common.  And she who had led a life apart now found that she craved it.  Here in these pages and between these covers she could go unrecognised.
The 120 pages breezed by with a good numbers of laughs, but Bennett succeeds in making this something more than a one joke trifle.

Bennett's story The Laying on of Hands (Picador, 2002) is also a send up of an English institution, the Anglican funeral.  In this case, the funeral of a young masseur who was many things to many people.
'Though we knew his name was Clive,' he was saying, 'we' - his wife sitting beside him smiled - 'we called him Max, a name I came to feel suited him well.  It's not entirely a nice name, not plain certainly or wholesome.  In fact Max, really, is the name of a charmer, implying a degree of sophistication, a veneer of social accomplishment.  It's urban, metropolitan, the name of someone who could take a vacant place at a poker game, say, and raise no eyebrows, which someone called...oh, Philip, say, couldn't.'

At this a woman in front turned round.  'I called him Philip.'  Then turning to her neighbour.  'He said that was what he felt like inside.'

'I called him Bunny,' said a man on the aisle and this was the signal for other names to be tossed around - Toby, Alex and even Denis, all, however, unlikely, attested to and personally guaranteed by various members of the congregation - so that still on his feet to bear witness to the unique appropriateness of Max the philosopher begins to feel a bit of a fool and says lamely, 'Well, he was always Max to us but this was obviously a many-sided man...
A joke becomes an occasion for Bennett to again play with the difference between the public and private self. Who someone is to another is a product of perception, knowledge, and emotion and in being arises from who we think, feel, and wish them to be - something psychology calls projection.  The popular understanding of psychoanalytic theory may have advanced projection as a defense employed when one cannot accept the negative attributes in oneself, but it may be more broadly understood as the way we all are characters in each others' life dramas.  We only ever experience ourselves in the first-person.  Even our intimates are known to us in the third-person.  In fact, we may project ourselves most upon those we feel we know the best, and it may be that fact that makes us feel that we know them deeply.

The funeral becomes something of a free-for-all, a projectionist's paradise, as people vie for their version of the dead man whose hands once knew them intimately, because it is in this knowledge that they can feel they were known.  But being known and knowing another are not necessarily the same thing.  What is meant to be a dignified affair becomes an unruly mess
Less feeling was what Treacher wanted, the services of the church, as he saw it, a refuge from the prevailing sloppiness.  As opportunities multiplied for the display of sentiment in public and on television - confessing, grieving and giving way to anger, and always with a ready access to tears - so it seemed to Treacher that there was needed a place for dryness and self-control and this was the church.
Bennett renders the scene hilariously, in fact I would love to stage it, because it is in the fullness of unruliness that the masseur was remembered as who he was and, perhaps just as importantly at a funeral, that the mourners could feel they were known to the man and in losing an intimate, grieve.

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