Tag Archives: Marcel Proust

Going home again (or not)

Catching up on my James Bond gossip today, as I am wont, I came across a snippet of an article about how Pierce Brosnan doesn’t like to watch his Bond movies.  This is not an uncommon stance among actors.  In fact I can’t think of a single actor I’ve ever heard of claiming that he or she enjoys checking out their old stuff.  Maybe it’s a stock reply because they think that otherwise they’ll come off as immodest.  But it’s probably genuine.  I can recall attending sci-fi conventions and being surprised, at least at the early ones, that the actors knew far less about the work they’d appeared in than the fans in the audience.  How could they not know?  They were in it, for Pete’s sake, they must have watched it a thousand times too!  Of course they should be aware that you can’t fire the phasers by pushing the seventh button on the display panel, it’s the eighth button.  Sheesh.  (Cue the Simpsons nerd saying “I hope someone got fired for that blunder.”)  So I read this article about Brosnan and I’m reminded of the post I wrote defending George Lucas’ right to tinker with his creation.  It’s an interesting contrast between the artist who abandons his work without a second thought and the one who obsesses over getting it right for years on end.  The spectrum of writers must be of the same diverse breadth.  Look back, or move ever forward without the mirror?

George Harrison wrote in the liner notes of the 2000 CD reissue of his 1971 triple album All Things Must Pass that he had to resist the temptation to remix every song.  As I’ve admitted previously, I’m a tinkerer when it comes to my words.  I edit and re-edit, deleting and shifting words around in pursuit of the perfect sentence.  It’s probably not the best way to flex one’s writing muscles – not nearly as productive as simply letting go and watching the words pour out.  That is the notion behind NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month, what those of us who can’t grow mustaches well do in lieu of Movember), in that you are not permitted to go back and edit until you have completed the month’s worth of writing (and finished a first draft to boot).  But frankly, there are days where I just don’t have it in me to create much new stuff, and editing is a stopgap way to keep the juices trickling, if not flowing.  I’m aware of the school of thought that says that on days like that you should force yourself to write anyway.  Perhaps that’s true.  That is one of the reasons I find blogging refreshing.  Something can be written spontaneously about the events of the day, completed and sent off into the void with little thought to looking back and changing things around.  It is another step towards pure creation.

But is there value in going back?  I’m of the opinion that there is, despite some seeing it as narcissistic navel-gazing.  For one thing, given that all writers are tremendously insecure and at our core, believe that we suck and no one will ever read us (admit it!), it’s healthy to revisit something that you wrote that really shone.  Somewhere amidst the hundreds and thousands of words of triteness and crap that will never voyage beyond your hard drive, the gems are lurking.  You can probably imagine such a passage off the top of your head.  A few dozen words scribbled or typed late one night in the midst of a short story or unfinished, Proustian behemoth of a postmodernist novel that just for one moment, scraped against the door of greatness.  And then you remind yourself, on your worst, most doubting day, that yeah, you can do this.  You’ve done it before, you’ll do it again.  Or, you look back to remind yourself of how much better you’ve become.  How you’ve abandoned your overreliance on adverbs and polysyllabic words and found your clarion voice.  It’s the evolution of you, the honing of the mark you are going to make on the literary canon, a blade sharpened and polished one paragraph at a time.

Pierce Brosnan may not want to watch his old movies anymore.  But I’m happy to take a stroll through the memories of old works whenever it suits me.  Because at the risk of hauling out one of those trite expressions that as a maturing writer I should never, ever use, you can’t know where you’re going until you understand where you’ve been.  And every so often, you have to glance at the map again.

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Remembrance of simple pleasures

WordPress is a fascinating place.  On any given day you can glide through it like the waves off Kilauea and find tales to lift your spirit, make you laugh, or inspire you to punch through your screen.  Throughout history, the human experience has been in sharing our stories with one another, and what goes on here in the virtual world is a natural progression from and extension of those drawings on cave walls and epics of heroes told around a dying fire.  Cruising through, I find myself often amazed by the level of writing talent out there or dumbstruck by how fascinating other people’s lives are when compared to mine.

Yesterday was not a day to make anyone’s history books in terms of the events that unfolded in my particular corner of the globe.  The activities undertaken were perhaps best described as the mundane pursuits of the first world – cleaning, cooking, shopping, decorating.  Yet I can seldom recall days that have felt more fulfilling or invigorating, or have led me to fall asleep at their close so contented.  I’ve spent the morning wondering why – what was it about what I did on this particular day?

The spooky fruits of yesterday's labor.

Waking up to silence in the sunshine.  Attaching Christmas lights to the eavestrough before the cold weather sets in.  Carving pumpkins for tonight’s trick-or-treaters.  Vacuuming the bedrooms.  Letting the cat fall asleep on my lap.  Drinking a sumptuously rich hot chocolate made, surprisingly, only with pure cocoa, skim milk and artificial sweetener.  Gloved fingers in mittened hand with the love of my life, taking a post-dinner stroll in crisp night to view the Halloween stylings of our neighbors’ front porches.  A simple day, but one filled with smiles, good work, vigorous exercise and the company of the most special person in the world.  What more can one ask of a single day?

Writers are accustomed to dreaming big, as we shape accounts of things that were or conceive of things that never shall be.  Compared to the worlds we concoct with our minds and fingertips, reality often seems smaller, monochrome.  Yet the true treasures of life are not to be found on a remote mountaintop or in a galaxy far, far away.  They are the diamonds we call moments, especially when shared with those most dear to us.  Moments like yesterday.  They are visceral, to be savored and relished, and lived again when they’re needed, even unexpectedly – when summoned like Marcel Proust with his madeleine.  The challenge for a writer is to find the words to share them in a way that conveys even a fragment of the true experience.  Does the most unflinchingly accurate description of a diamond ever truly capture the sheen or the lustre of a viewing of the real thing?  More to the point, does it really need to?  Maybe this is one of those times to put down the pen, look away from one’s navel and stop trying to assign a philosophical meaning to something that doesn’t need to be over-analyzed to be appreciated solely for the magnificence of what it was.

Yesterday was a great day.  A peaceful, uncomplicated, rewarding day.  And perhaps in its own peaceful, uncomplicated way, that’s more than enough.

In search of lost leaders

I paraphrased that from Marcel Proust – a name any candidate for office drops at his or her own peril, lest they be labeled an out-of-touch, latte-sipping elitist and snob.  I haven’t read A la recherche du temps perdu – my experience of Proust is confined to multiple viewings of the “All-England Summarize Proust Competition” from Monty Python’s Flying Circus.  I did however slog my way through James Joyce’s Ulysses earlier this year.  (Spoiler alert:  the last word is “yes.”)  I didn’t read it so I could say I did whilst peering down my nose at the teenage girl devouring her dog-eared copy of Twilight.  I read it out of a sense of curiosity and wanting to enrich myself, and as a writer, wanting to learn from one of the masters.  Will it have any discernible impact on my own writing?  Can’t really say.  But the point wasn’t to reach a definitive goal.  It was to simply add another ingredient to the bubbling stew of my intellect – a concoction of memory, schooling, experience and opinion from which (hopefully) pours forth something of value.

Pardon me as I pause for another sip of my venti decaf mocha hazelnut frappucino.  I mention this as I watch the unfolding of two election campaigns with the memory of a third only a few months old, and bemoan the race to the bottom that each has become.  If there is a singular thread that runs through my handful of postings here, it is a profound belief in the capability of human beings at their best, and an equally profound disappointment at humanity’s choice not to exert its potential.  It’s a bit like watching Superman choose to sit on his porch with a beer just because he doesn’t feel like doing anything today.  Except instead of today it’s been the last 30 years.

Jimmy Carter was crushed in his bid for re-election by a guy who galvanized America with a bold, inspiring message.  The message wasn’t about the incredible things that America had done when it pulled together and shared sacrifice, like winning the Second World War or landing men on the moon.  No, it was that their government sucked.  (It remains frustrating to me that anyone can win election to office by decrying the office itself, but there you go.)  Ronald Reagan preached that government needed to be reined in, cut off at the knees, drowned in the bathtub.  This message resonated so deeply, coupled with the other side’s failure to articulate a decent rebuttal, that it has informed the political discourse in the U.S. ever since.  It’s disappointing to see even President Barack Obama buy into Reagan’s fallacy as he describes his battles with a Congress full of people who literally hate his guts.  The debate has moved so far to the right that those of us on the other side feel like we’re a yard from our own end zone with 15 seconds left on the clock in the fourth quarter.

The rebuttal should be that government works when the right people (pardon the uncomfortable pun) are running it.  And that is, subliminally, something that most people do agree with.  People want leadership.  “Strong leader” is one of the most important factors when pollsters take the temperature of the electorate’s attitude towards candidates.  Yet the atmosphere has become so trying that truly great leaders won’t even make the ballot, let alone win.  Television and 24/7 media scrutiny played on endless repeat with panel discussions, five-day-long specials and exclusive interviews has made it so that only the blandest folks can survive the onslaught.  An email used to circulate a few years ago where you were given three biographies and asked to pick which you thought would make the best leader – only after you’d picked were you given the names.  I don’t remember the exact details, but basically, the first was a drunk, the second was a cripple and the third was a squeaky-clean vegetarian customs clerk.  Based on the bios you always went for the clerk, only to discover that it was Hitler – while the former were Churchill and FDR respectively.

We’ve seen plenty of prospective leaders undone by the smallest gaffes.  Howard Dean, the progressive governor of Vermont who was leading in the early 2004 Democratic presidential race, was finished off by media overreaction to an exuberant scream he gave during a rally-the-troops speech to his supporters.  Not a sex scandal, illegal nanny or even a misfiled income tax return.  A scream.  Michael Ignatieff, the highly-regarded writer, educator and public intellectual, led Canada’s Liberal Party to its worst-ever defeat after being hounded in attack ads and the press for having lived several years abroad.  Again, he hadn’t fathered a kid with the maid or been caught snorting cocaine off a bikini model’s boobs.  He was attacked for having lived outside the country.  No one can say what kind of leaders these guys would have been had they won.  But the circumstances of their undoing merely reinforced the meme that safe and bland is a winning strategy.  In fact, you don’t have to be a strong leader at all – you just have to say you are over and over again and people will start to believe it, regardless of the evidence to the contrary, or lack of any evidence of leadership qualities at all.

If we are defined by our mistakes, and our character shaped by our reactions to them, what can be said of people who don’t make any?  How is someone who grew up in comfort and was parachuted into his career by his country club father, someone who has never had to take risks and has never experienced the ache and disappointment of loss and personal failings ever supposed to empathize with the plight of drug addicts or the homeless, or the simple working man who has to scratch for every dime to feed his family?  How is that person supposed to unite the differing interests of a vast country and guide them into a new and better era?  When you occasion to wonder why we haven’t gone back to the moon, or to Mars, or really progressed very much further in our evolution, you have only to look at the mediocrities we’ve entrusted to lead us – people with no imagination, no soul, no capability of looking beyond the end of the spreadsheet.  Politicians cruise to landslide victories on promises of nothing more than tax cuts.  We then act surprised when they don’t deliver anything else.

If someone is capable, if they are intelligent, if they are curious, if they have lived a learned and compassionate life, if they have a sense of humor, if they have experienced the world beyond their borders, if they believe in the ability of government to unite and do good, if they are driven to challenge and enrich themselves, and if the cruelties of regret have forged the gravitas of statesmen, then quite frankly, I don’t care if they have snorted cocaine off a bikini model’s boobs.  I’m more likely to admire them for admitting that and making light of it rather than succumbing to the papal-like finger-pointing of the media and the opposing party.  We need to remember that the best of us are broken in some way, and that by demanding perfection in candidates we won’t get leaders, we’ll only get managers – those guys who in the private sector become terrific assistant vice-presidents but never really impact anybody’s life but their own.  I hope to be more than that, and I hope we are one day again led by someone who is more than that.

So maybe I will pick up that copy of Proust after all.  And hopefully, a future leader is doing so right now as well.