I would give you the world if I could

I thought I might describe every single step of this staircase, every crack, flaw and grain in the oak as if it were a landscape. But if I can’t describe what’s outside the window–the way the winter sunshine falls on houses half a mile away while the High Street lies in shadow–how can I attempt something that much more complex? Close up, as far as language is concerned, the stairs exist off the edge of resolution. I continue to be an observer who was never much good at observation, stuck with a means of communication which can’t carry enough information. No wonder there’s this constant retreat to metaphor. The attempt to push through into something else is always a failed attempt to be in the real.

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Filed under appearances, landscape, writing

14 responses to “I would give you the world if I could

  1. Joe

    I have to disagree you’re great at observing and describing and I bet you could even make those stairs interesting…

  2. By describing them as what they are not, bien sûr.

  3. Words fail me. . . but then, so does fine art and photography, acting and movies. None of it can refine, define that precise ism of a scene. Still, Mike, you do a hell of a sight better than most. Maybe it’s partly because that, as a climber, you’ve experienced extremes, been more at one with nature, more elated and more shit scared than the vast majority. Would Martin Amis be a better writer if he’d ever been to war? Discuss.

  4. Mike: Nice description, close to the mind, but not sure about the “retreat into metaphor.” Just to be clear here…a metaphor is a slight-of-hand, a creative trick to bring the reader’s mind into the process. Not really a “retreat” at all. It’s more like a cavalry charge… Wittgenstein said, paraphrasing, the more you describe something the less it will be seen or felt. Hence, the flash of a metaphor’s shorthand, its rabbit-out-of-a-hat appearance. It’s saying, enough, Get it!, let’s move on…

  5. uzwi

    Hi roy hamric: Obviously I have thirty or forty years history of making this complaint of being unable to be a realist. (Suffering it as a complaint too, perhaps, in the sense of disease; or working with it & into it as you would with a psychological problem.) I’m well aware, but rather angry, that it’s not possible to be a camera: Climbers, for instance, was specifically a dance with & around issues of that kind. But for me, metaphor, as defined by you here, has always been easy & therefore can seem like the easy way out, an avoidance of the issue. A giving up too soon. There is also the question where the turnstile at the heart of any metaphor actually takes the reader. Push them hard enough and analogies break down under analysis & simply stop working; but metaphors just continue to point, numinously, at something which never really claimed to be there, or be definable, in the first place. But sure, I love metaphor, and I wouldn’t be without it (at structural levels as well as at the level of prose); just, every so often, my fifteen year old self regrets it cannot really describe, ie photograph & pass on to the reader, the smoke rising from a cigarette–this cigarette, now. It’s pathetic, but a reminder of this seems to reaffirm some necessary anxiety for me.

  6. Mike, I sense your longtime dance with “realism” is really a metaphor for wanting to be more spiritual, to breakthrough this “reality” we call life. Hence, the anxiety at not being able to capture the mystery through description or ideas. We can’t get there through words, can we? We really can’t touch that place through words. But, we can pretend that by describing our inner “reality” and our outside “reality” we are somehow getting closer to that mystery. What you said about language is true. It’s simply off-point, a blind birddog, that goes around in circles and can’t take us to “reality.” It’s a constant recurring, ever-failing shadow-show that always, mysteriously, captures our attention. And if we ever did find reality, we’d be speechless (writer-less) anyway.

    When you say “metaphors just continue to point, numinously, at something which never really claimed to be there, or be definable, in the first place,” you nailed it. We’re on the same page. And you did it in a flash.

  7. uzwi

    Rob Macfarlane is a dog who hunts similar ground. C4 of The Old Ways, “Silt”, solves pretty much every problem I have around all this. Sadly for me it’s him who solved it, not me…

  8. I still feel your camera envy is misplaced. Photographs record only surfaces – the top layer of atoms of a reflective solid – in 2D from a monocular viewpoint. No solidity, no smell, no warmth, nothing below or above the surface. Nor memory, nor desire, nor intelligence. So just a somewhat arbitrary splinter of reality. Writing is a far far better way of approaching the real, I would say.

  9. what about the reality of the land of words? In my case the land of paint. Isn’t that place just as worth visiting as the staircase and the mountain you are climbing? And isn’t it OK if the two of them (words and actual (?) place) have a bit of a dance? If you manage to get that to be an art thing you then have made something real. It is as tangible as the rock scraping your face. But it’s somewhere not there…thus we have a different name for it.

  10. uzwi

    Hi Julian. It’s not really camera-envy, only the vestige of it. Even so, at least the camera captures some data. The writing process seems to misplace all the data the senses capture & offer the reader a muddle* instead; the reader then muddles that further by interpretation. I am not putting this forward seriously as an argument about communication (or maybe I am). Since writing can’t do that, ie photograph a staircase and pass the image directly to a viewer, it must be doing something else. Whatever that is, it does it reasonably well & I’m happy to be able to do it.

    I’m chary about Roy’s argument to spirituality. For me writing’s the attempt to exchange with the reader some token that confirms and extends our idea that we’re both in the world & both human. The product of an attempt at that is always going to be numinous, fragile, shifty, undependable, enlightening, whatever. In a sense, spirituality could be said to be a byproduct–unlooked-for & maybe welcome, maybe not–of the serious attempt to describe us as in some way “here”.

    *I’m not against that muddle, by the way, anymore than I’m against the resort to metaphor. I welcome both. This isn’t really a complaint of a 68 year old with a lot of form in this area; it’s the complaint of the 15 year old who still desperately hoped he could show everyone else exactly what he could see.

  11. uzwi

    Hi Mia, sorry, cross-posted. In answer: clearly. It’s what we do. If we’re to talk about the reproducibility/nonreproducibility axis at all (& there are lots of other axes work might lie along, obviously), then between the attempt to show the world & the failure to show it, some third thing is made & can be wildly exciting. In fact if the basic anxiety of being able/unable to show the world hadn’t generated such adrenalin in me at 15, I wouldn’t have become addicted at all…

  12. Mike: You write: “I’m chary about Roy’s argument [for] spirituality [as a creative drive for my work]. For me writing’s the attempt to exchange with the reader some token that confirms and extends our idea that we’re both in the world & both human.”

    I can live with that second sentence. Re-creating our world of human experience in ways that can be shared is, at root, a homage, a communion, to Life, to living (even if it’s full of suffering and pathos). A token…to It.

    Creative people approach that in complicated, endless ways (poetry, books, paintings, math formulas, a beautify designed building) that go beyond the lives of so-called non-creative people – just folks.

    Anxiety, perhaps, is the subconscious recognition that all human expressions are just that – limited and frail expressions, secondary and impossibly puny in comparison with the instinct to get closer to the force creating life as we know it. I’m writing romantic claptrap here… I could just as easily decide to describe the stairs. Either way, I feel I’d be doing the same thing. Trying to touch something that is mysteriously driving me to create something.

    The blind birddog barks.

  13. Jack Spicer had something to say:

    “I would like to make poems out of real objects. The lemon to be a lemon that the reader could cut or squeeze or taste — a real lemon like a newspaper in a collage is a real newspaper. I would like the moon in my poems to be a real moon, one which could be suddenly covered with a cloud that has nothing to do with the poem — a moon utterly independent of images. The imagination pictures the real. I would like to point to the real, disclose it, to make a poem that has no sound in it but the pointing of a finger. …
    “Things do not connect; they correspond. That is what makes it possible for a poet to translate real objects, to bring them across language as easily as he can bring them across time. That tree you saw in Spain is a tree I could never have seen in California, that lemon has a different smell and a different tasted. BUT the answer is this — every place and every time has a real object to _correspond_ with your real object — that lemon may become this lemon, or it may even become this piece of seaweed, or this particular color of gray in this ocean. One does not need to imagine that lemon; one needs to discover it.”

  14. Robert

    I’m reminded of a passage from Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, in which the protagonist, Ulrich, relieves himself of a similar notion:

    “Later, when Ulrich’s intellectual capacity was more highly developed, this became an idea no longer connected with the vague word “hypothesis” but with a concept he oddly termed, for certain reasons, “essay.” It was more or less in the way an essay, in the sequence of its paragraphs, explores a thing from many sides without wholly encompassing it–for a thing wholly encompassed suddenly loses its scope and melts down to a concept–that he believed he could most rightly survey and handle the world and his own life.”