Sunday, September 28, 2008

On the loss of time & on knowing when to stop (Books - Tanglewreck by Jeanette Winterson & Side Effects by Adam Phillips)

Preparing to do a quick get-away in the Berkshires this wet, wet weekend. It was a mistake to try to do laundry yesterday, everything is still damp, but I was down to my last rags and patches. Anyhoo, a couple of days off from classes means that I didn't have to do as much school reading yesterday and got to dip into a few other things. But while I'll have you here, is anyone else having the problem of Mozilla Firefox crashing when they try to compose or edit a post on Blogger? It just started with me although, as you can see, Internet Explorer works just fine. Any advice? I have posted to the Blogger Help Group.

I have made a fair bit of progress in Jeanette Winterson's jaunt into fantasy for young readers, too bad the writing hasn't also made progress. Winterson is very into physics, according to Sheila, who I would trust on such matters. And she tries to get some into Tanglewreck every chance she gets. The trouble is, it is not very well integrated.

The River Thames at Limehouse bows away from the City. The river glitters darkly. The river reflects the starless London sky. The river flows on to the sea. The river flows in one direction, but Time does not. Time's river carries our spent days out to sea and sometimes those days come back to us, changed, strange, but still ours. Time's flow is not even, and there are snags underwater, hesitations in Time where the clock sticks. A minute on Earth is not the same length as a minute on Jupiter. A minute on Earth is sometimes a different length all by itself.

The paragraph starts out nicely enough, but it all seems an excuse for a physics lesson with no attempt at integration into the plot, just the omniscient authorial voice descending to give us a lovely little lecture on time - thanks for that Jeanette. This all seems to be driven by a theme emerging in the novel:

'It is strange, but the machine age and the computer age both promised to give mere mortals more time in their lives, but less time is what it seems we have. We are using up Time too fast, just as we are using up all the other resources of the Earth...'

This seems to be the driving force behind the plot which, despite how artlessly its components fit together, is still fun enough to keep me reading. In this case, the notion is least spoken by the character Abel Darkwater - one of the book's villains - a man who desires to possess all time. He apparently also has a nemesis name, Regalia Mason who, we learn

...had an office in part of New York City called Tribeca. She was so high up that the clouds sometimes snowed outside her window while lower buildings were still in sunshine.

In her vast white office she gave orders to people who had never seen her. People knew her name and they were afraid of her, but only a very few knew what she looked like.

She was beautiful.

And cold.
Brrrr. Honestly, just because some of the readers of this novel are supposed to be kids, does that really mean it requires this infantile style of delivery? Looking at the diction, I would say the book was written for a child of six. But looking at the mini-lectures on the fabric of time, I would say perhaps eleven or twelve. It's a shame to watch a talented writer end up being so misguided. At six I certainly wasn't reading string theory, but at twelve I read Agatha Christie, James Herriot, Bram Stoker, Josephine Tey, and Arthur Conan Doyle quite comfortably. I am sticking with Tanglewreck, however, as I am counting on the plot delivering something that is at least entertaining.

I have also read the next piece in psychoanalyst/essayist Adam Phillips's
Side Effects about knowing when to stop. A theme he explores from the point of view of relationships in general and the therapist/patient relationship specifically. adapt Valery's famous remark about completing a poem - that an analysis is never finished, it is only abandoned. And in this, despite suggestions to the contrary, the so-called analytic relationship is like, or at least similar to, every other so-called relationship. The language of completion is unsuitable for what goes on between people. It is possible to know that one no longer sees someone, no longer has sex with someone; it is less possible to know whether one no longer thinks of someone. Indeed, one of the things psychoanalysis reveals is just how haunted we are, in spite of ourselves, by other selves, by bits and pieces of others. It is impossible, though, to know when or whether a relationship has ended. Or what it is for a relationship to end, rather than change.

Phillips enjoys using art as metaphor for understanding the process of analysis and the role of both therapist and patient in it.

...they are both, in different ways and in quite diferent contexts, telling us that there is something valuable, from a psychoanalytic point of view, in not being impressively coherent, something about not being wholly plausible, or, in a conventional sense, intelligible, that psychoanalysis might ignore to its cost... Of course, the ideas that we should be suspicious of intelligibility is itself paradoxical. As an aesthetic principle, it
is perhaps best captured in the poet John Ashbery's remakr that 'the worse your art is the easier it is to talk aobut.' This might translate as: 'The more defensive you are the more plausible you will seem to yourself (and other people).'

One of Phillips strengths as a writer about psychoanalytic process is that he finds metaphors for describing aspects of theory which would otherwise remain undefinable abstractions. He offers much less in the way of case study than, say, Oliver Sacks does in writing about his discipline. Phillips is writing about ideas, not about patients, and his examples can be quite erudite (John Ashbery), but this doesn't seem to cost him a readership. This could render his books interesting only to specialists, but judging from his sales and his paperback editions, he seems to have found his niche. I am impressed by his prose, although it is, at times, repetitive. He is a champion of his process. I will leave you with this.

Knowing when to stop means feeling cured; knowing about people in a cured state, so to speak. But what of the afterlife of relationships, which is as real in its own way as is the life of relationships? And yet, as everyone knows who likes the sound of psychoanalysis, it is not solely or simply a problem-solving exercise. For some people, the relationship can end when the presenting problem has been solved. It is a kind of common sense that if you go to a psychoanalyst with claustrophobia, your involvement with the analyst will finish either when you are no longer claustrophobic or when you have finally given up hope of ever being changed by this kind of therapy. But you may also find, given a psychoanalytic opportunity, that whether or not you get symptom relief, you may want to go on; you may even come to believe that symptom relief may not be the be-all and end-all of the process. Not suffering matters, but not living as well as you can may matter more, and that is likely to involve suffering.

I will write next hopefully from in front of the fireplace in the Massachusetts hills.


Sheila O'Malley said...

Have a great trip!

I also know that Winterson is a fanatical environmentalist and I found her "integration" of those concerns into Tanglewreck to be awkward and annoying. It's condescending ... it's like: "oooh, let me take this chance to indoctrinate small children into my own beliefs!"

There is certainly a way to get across a message ... In Madeleine L'Engles Ring of Endless Light (perhaps one of my favorites of all of her books) - it takes place in an oceanographer's lab - where the scientists there are studying the behavior of dolphins and trying to "interpret" the sounds dolphin make into some kind of coherent language. There is also one study being done on ESP and how the dolphins highly developed sonar could also be seen as a version of ESP and what could we, as humans, learn from that?

The book ends up becoming a total endorsement of science for science's sake - for pure research ... but without any didactic lecturing. What we are actually doing throughout the book is getting to know the characters, and hanging out with the dolphins ..

Very gracefully done.

But Winterson comes off as SNEAKY here ... like she doesn't respect kids all that much, and she wants to try to slip something past them.

Not good!!!

Ted said...

S - I'm definitely with you on this one! I have just added the L'Engle to my list - sounds really fun! Drinks w/ Dee sometime soon?

Eva said...

That first paragraph you quoted sounds like a spoof! I definitely won't be picking this one up, but I do love L'Engle. :D

Have fun on your trip: I hope it's relaxing!!

Ted said...

Thanks, Eva. It was nice but, alas, no wireless.