Sunday afternoon, I was reading D.H. Lawrence Mornings in Mexico, a book that describes Mexico in day-to-day early stages. As I arrived at Chapter 4 – Market Day, it captivates me in such a way that I began to read it audibly. At some more difficult parts, I had to stop and reread silently until 2-3 times. It starts with a thesis:
To buy and to sell, but above all, to commingle. In the old world, men make themselves two great excuses for coming together to a centre, and commingling freely in a mixed, unsuspicious host. Market and religion. These alone bring men, unarmed, together since time began. A little load of firewood, a woven blanket, a few eggs and tomatoes are excuse enough for men, women, and children to cross the foot-weary miles of valley and mountain. To buy, to sell, to barter, to exchange. To exchange, above all things, human contact.
It continues to emphasize on how the act of bargaining’s sole purpose is not to acquire money. There’s more to that:
It is a bargain. Off you go with multicoloured pinks, and the woman has had one more moment of contact, with a stranger, a perfect stranger. An intermingling of voices, a threading together of different wills. It is life. The centavos are an excuse.
The marketplace, which fulfills each of its participants, is more pleasant than religion.
It is fulfilled, what they came to market for. They have sold and bought. But more than that, they have had their moment of contact and centripetal flow. They have been part of a great stream of men flowing to a centre, to the vortex of the marketplace. And here they have felt life concentrate upon them, they have been jammed between the soft hot bodies of strange men come from afar, they have had the sound of strangers’ voices in their ears, they have asked and been answered in unaccustomed ways. … There is no goal, and no abiding-place, and nothing is fixed, not even the cathedral towers.
The chapter closes by leaving me a substance of contemplation between the value of the tangible and the intangible. Lawrence uses the term “spark of contact”, or perhaps in my term, cycle of memories.
Nothing but the touch, the spark of contact. That, no more. That, which is most elusive, still the only treasure. Come, and gone, and yet the clue itself.
The money gained from the transaction “will disappear as the stars disappear at daybreak, as they are meant to disappear. Everything is meant to disappear. Every curve plunges into the vortex and is lost, re-emerges with a certain relief and takes to the open, and there is lost again.”
Only that which is utterly intangible, matters. The contact, the spark of exchange. That which can never be fastened upon, for ever gone, for ever coming, never to be detained: the spark of contact.
Like the evening star, when it is neither night nor day. Like the evening star, between the sun and the moon, and swayed by neither of them. The flashing intermediary, the evening star that is seen only at the dividing of the day and night, but then is more wonderful than either.
(Of possessing Beauty by understanding it and asking yourself enough questions in the process)
Why are some of us so drawn into drawing/painting and writing, even before an idea of being good or not good enough at it ever dwells in mind? According to John Ruskin (1819 – 1900), mainly known as a watercolourist and an art critic but also a writer, the twin purposes of art is to make sense of pain and to comprehend the sources of beauty. For the latter, there are five central conclusions of human’s interest in beauty and in its possession:
Firstly, that beauty is the result of a complex number of factors that affect the mind psychologically and visually.
Secondly, that humans have an innate tendency to respond to beauty and to desire to possess it.
Thirdly, that there are many lower expressions of this desire for possession, including the desire to buy souvenirs and carpets, to carve one’s name in pillars and to take photographs.
Fourthly, that there is only one way to possess beauty properly and that is through understanding it, through making ourselves conscious of the factors (psychological and visual) that are responsible for it.
And lastly, that the most effective way of pursuing this conscious understanding is by attempting to describe beautiful places through art, through writing or drawing them, irrespective of whether we happen to have any talent for doing so.
Since his early childhood, Ruskin had had an unusually peculiar sensitivity towards observing details of the visual world, recalling himself at the age of 3 or 4 as being “contentedly in tracing the squares and comparing the colours of (my) carpet – examining the knots in the wood of the floor, or counting the bricks in the opposite houses with rapturous intervals of excitement.” To him, the matter of drawing is neither about doing it well or becoming an artist. He values the act of drawing as a higher conduct than becoming a good sketcher or a skillful artist itself, because he believes in the act of drawing as an act that has value even when it is practiced by those who have no talent. Above the act of drawing, the beauty of the object of drawing is what matters more to love: “I believe that the sight is a more important thing than the drawing; and I would rather teach drawing that my pupils may learn to love nature, than teach the looking at nature that they may learn to draw.”
Often irritated by how seldom people noticed details, Ruskin told his fellow students in what way he wanted them to see things:
Now, remember, gentlemen, that I have not been trying to teach you to draw, only to see. Two men are walking through Clare Market, one of them comes out at the other end not a bit wiser than when he went in; the other notices a bit of parsley hanging over the edge of a butter-woman’s basket, and carries away with him images of beauty which in the course of his daily work he incorporates with it for many a day. I want you to see things like these.”
At another occasion, he describes two kinds of persons going out for a walk: one is a good sketcher, the other is not familiar with that of any kind:
There will be a great difference in the scene as perceived by the two individuals. The one will see a lane and trees; he will perceive the trees to be green, though he will think nothing about it; he will see that the sun shines, and that it has a cheerful effect; and that’s all! But what will the sketcher see? His eye is accustomed to search into the case of beauty, and penetrate the minutest parts of loveliness. He looks up, and observes how the showery and subdivided sunshine comes sprinkled down among the gleaming leaves overhead, till the air is filled with the emerald light. [...] Is not this worth seeing? Yet if you are not a sketcher you will pass along the green lane, and when you come home again, have nothing to say or to think about it, but that you went down such and such a lane.”
I find that there’s often a close acquaintance between the act of drawing and writing, with the latter being termed by Ruskin as “word painting”. This explains how Orhan Pamuk describes his obsession with drawing/painting in most parts of his autobiographical book Istanbul but ends it in a way that left me speechless for about 5 minutes pondering over the last sentences he said to his mother:
“I don’t want to be an artist,” I said. “I’m going to be a writer.”
Both (drawing and writing) are the most effective tools in understanding beauty. Photography is often chosen as a “lower” means of expression, as a less powerful visual mean to possess and carry the beauty of a scene in our mind effectively since “the camera blurs the distinction between looking and noticing, between seeing and possessing; it may give us the option of true knowledge but it may unwittingly make the effort of acquiring it seem superfluous” (de Botton). Although respected for his drawings in his lifetime, it was Ruskin’s word-paintings that ignited his admirable fame in the public sphere during the late Victorian period. From a younger generation than Ruskin, Virginia Woolf shows this similar obsession in observing details, a great asset she always trains to apply her stream of consciousness techniques in writing. She found great delights in looking at blossoming flowers and most things that people fail to notice or even don’t find as worth observing:
“I adore looking at blossoming flowers though for the most part, it emotionally drains me. I like getting a sense of the world constantly reborn and enhanced; yet I am melancholy because such beauty is untouchable. Such beauty is chaotically intolerable.” Virginia Woolf, aged 15, from The Early Journals 1897-1909.
“I spent an hour looking at pots and carpets in the museums the other day, until the desire to describe them became like the desire for the lusts of the flesh.” -Selected Letters.
Ruskin reveals a simple key to opening the sensitive part of our physical senses in observing the details and the causes of the beauty by doing something meditatively intimate with oneself. We need to ask ourselves questions while observing something that fascinates us, a series of questions that a trained sketcher usually raises and tries to answer in the process of sketching: ‘How do the stems connect to the roots?’ ‘Where is the mist coming from?’ ‘Why does one tree seem darker than another?’ ‘What in particular is attractive about this stretch of water? What are its associations?’ ‘What is a better word for it than big?’
Failing to ask ourselves these series of questions in the process of understanding beauty leads to the thread of sloppiness: of not being precise in analyzing what we had seen and felt. And not being precise in analyzing them leads to the failure of making sense of things and to preserving the lasting effect that beauty is supposed to have on us.
In a much simpler way, Woolf taught the little Nigel Nicolson, the son of her lover Vita Sackville-West to go further with himself and to understand what he has experienced by asking questions in order to describe his morning (skip to minute 07:10)
“I remember once she said, ‘What has happened to you this morning?’ And I would reply, ‘well, nothing.’
‘Oh come on, come on,’ she would say. ‘What woke you up?’ And I would reply, ‘It was the sun. The sun coming through our bedroom window.’ ‘What sort of a sun?’ she would say. ‘A kindly sun? Angry sun?’
-For more, see Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel, as all the quoted parts on Ruskin are from there.
As much as I love reading, the only time I have ever opened a recipe book was when I was at someone else’s bookshelf (indicating that I have none), and yet all those books with apparently good looking photographs of ready-to-serve meals have never really caught my attention. But this time was different. The other day I was at a friend’s place and a curiosity was tickling me to open a recipe book that has been lying around her table for quite a while. The book is by Nigel Slater: Nigel Slater, The Kitchen Diaries II. This friend who owns the book has been kind of obsessed with making all the meals from the book lately that she even made a special blog on which she follows each entry of the diaries, narrates her experience in finding the ingredients and going through the process, and then displays the results in a neat way. If you read through her blog, you would notice that it’s not just for the sake of making meals. There’s something from the persona who wrote the book that drives her to that point of making such big efforts. And that perhaps, is what invites Mr. Curiosity in the first place.
As I started to leaf through the pages of this kitchen diaries, it took only the first few sentences to get me hooked. It’s truly different from any other “recipe books” I’ve ever laid my fingers upon. This one has its charm on me, not only the photographs of four different seasons in between each parts, but the sentences that this Nigel Slater writes. He mentions in the book that he’s not a chef, but he prefers to be called a cook who writes. The sentences are crafted, they have a personal depth, and as always, there’s an old blanket of melancholic beauty covering the whole process of making a meal without being corny, just like an honest skillfully-written personal journal. Below was how he described his thoughts as he was sitting in a restaurant by the harbour staring through the window while waiting for his meal to be served:
I have always loved the colour grey. Peaceful, elegant, understated; the colour of stone, steel and soft, nurturing rain. The view from the window across the harbour has every shade, from driftwood to charcoal: the lagoon, the restaurant’s weathered cedar cladding, the moored boats, the trees on the opposite shore, all in delicated shades of calming grey.
And the best part of what I’ve read so far (not so much I guess) is how he gives me a revealing perspective on white rice. Yes, that particular seeds of grain that I’ve been consuming for like, forever. I’m aware that his idea of white rice will occupy my mind each time I think of or eat white rice from now on, which I clearly have no objection to.
Sometimes, I rather like noise. The testosterone-fuelled roar of a football match heard from my back garden; the tired and blissfully happy sounds of a crowd singing along at a festival; the swoosh of a barista’s steam wand. But most times I prefer peace and quiet. The sound of snow falling in a forest is more my style – something I have yet to hear this year.
There is quiet food, too. The tastes of peace and quiet, of gentleness and calm. The solitary observance of a bowl of white rice; the peacefulness of a dish of pearl barley; running your fingers through couscous. The thing these have in common is that they are grains or something of that ilk. What is it about these ingredients that makes them so calming? Could it just be that they bring us gastronomically down to earth, show us how pure and simple good eating can be? This is food pretty much stripped of its trappings. It is, after all, the food that many people survive upon.
The peacefulness of grains, their earth tones and the fact that they don’t snap or crunch between the teeth, is what makes them food to eat when we are looking for solace and calm. The fact they are not from dead animal probably has something to do with it, too.
and the way he ends most of the sentences, it gives me the sensation of riding on a soaring imagination:
A bowl of porridge is a quiet breakfast (no snap, crackle or pop) that sets me up for the day. I feel a sense of calm and wellbeing after a breakfast of porridge. I should add that mine now comes in a wooden bowl. I regard my porridge bowls as some of the most beautiful items in my kitchen. They are made by Guy Kerry at his croft in the Black Isle, with ash wood from a tree blown down in a storm.
I’m also aware of my own crush for people who write skillfully, who ignite beautiful sensation and vivid images through written texts, whose obsession might be driven by the longing for something they’ll never have in life but consequently drives them to keep creating stuffs. I might read his whole book one day, and indeed one doesn’t necessarily have to want to be a pilot to want to read about a pilot’s life, right? But perhaps, I’ll probably have my own perspective on food-making be changed drastically. I, a non-cook who reads. I mean, based on the mere beauty of it all, how could I resist?
ps: oh do watch Toast, a film based on his autobiography with the same name.
Dear Pat, You came upon me carving some kind of little figure out of wood and you said, “Why don’t you make something for me?” I asked you what you wanted, and you said, “A box.” “What for?” “To put things in.” “What things?” “Whatever you have,” you said. Well, here’s your box. Nearly everything I have is in it, and it is not full. Pain and excitement are in it, and feeling good or bad and evil thoughts and good thoughts — the pleasure of design and some despair and the indescribable joy of creation. And on top of these are all the gratitude and love I have for you. And still the box is not full.
-the Dedication page of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden (1952). Lines I always revisit and grow fonder of each time.
During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher. I know not how it was–but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit. I say insufferable; for the feeling was unrelieved by any of that half-pleasureable, because poetic, sentiment, with which the mind usually receives even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible. I looked upon the scene before me–upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain–upon the bleak walls–upon the vacant eye-like windows–upon a few rank sedges–and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees–with an utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream of the reveller upon opium–the bitter lapse into everyday life–the hideous dropping off of the veil. There was an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart [...]
-Edgar Allan Poe, The Fall of the House of Usher (1839)
Who hasn’t heard of Poe, but well I haven’t really read or enjoyed any of his works til I heard it being read in the closing scene of Detachment. In the scene, Brody read this short story to his students with his deep calming voice combined with the somewhat charming uninterestingly thin lips and crooked nose. I must say it was a very well-done closing scene (although a bit dramatic). And it’s what he said to his students that’s really been floating in my mind til this very second: “so as we read we can see that the House of Usher is not merely an old decrepit castle and disrepair. It’s also a state of being.”
It’s how one feels beauty in the ruins of bleaked walls and decayed trees, even to a higher point than mere beauty, of the combination of terror and sensation, which is the sublime. The beauty of his detached-hollow-depressed self, the beauty that art produces out of the chaotic world and failed parenthood, and the beauty of the movie itself as a form of entertainment (that some might find less or least entertaining).
..There was money in the bank and a degree of security and happiness.
… In the great valley the grain fields flattened away toward the east, to the foothills and to the high mountains, and toward the west they ended nearer in the rounded hills where the live oaks sat in black splotches. In the summer the yellow heat shimmered and burned and glared on the baking hills, and the shade of the great trees over the Corners was a thing to look forward to and to remember. In the winter when the heavy rains fell, the restaurant was a warm place of coffee and chili beans and pie. In the deep spring when the grass was on fields and foothills, when the lupiness and poppies made a splendid blue and gold earth, when the great trees awakened in yellow-green young leaves, then there was no more lovely place in the world. It was no beauty you could ignore by being used to it. It caught you in the throat in the morning and made a pain of pleasure in the pit of your stomach when the sun went down over it.
If you’re going to try, go all the way. Otherwise, don’t even start. This could mean losing girlfriends, wives, relatives and maybe even your mind. It could mean not eating for three or four days. It could mean freezing on a park bench. It could mean jail. It could mean derision. It could mean mockery—isolation. Isolation is the gift. All the others are a test of your endurance, of how much you really want to do it. And, you’ll do it, despite rejection and the worst odds. And it will be better than anything else you can imagine. If you’re going to try, go all the way. There is no other feeling like that. You will be alone with the gods, and the nights will flame with fire. You will ride life straight to perfect laughter. It’s the only good fight there is.
You are looking outwards, and of all things that is what you must now not do. Nobody can advise and help you, nobody. There is only one single means. Go inside yourself. Discover the motive that bids you write; examine whether it sends its roots down to the deepest places of your heart, confess to yourself whether you would have to die if writing were denied you. This before all: ask yourself in the quietest hour of your night: must I write? Dig down into yourself for a deep answer. And if this should be in the affirmative, if you may meet this solemn question with a strong and simple “I must“, then build your life according to this necessity; your life must, right to its most unimportant and insignificant hour, become a token and a witness of this impulse. Then draw near to Nature. Then try, as if you were one of the first men, to say what you see and experience and love and lose. Do not write love poems; avoid at first those forms which are too familiar and usual: they are the most difficult, for great and fully matured strength is needed to make an individual contribution where good and in part brilliant traditions exist in plenty.
Turn therefore from the common themes to those which your own everyday life affords; depict your sorrows and desires, your passing thoughts and belief in some kind of beauty — depict all that with heartfelt, quiet, humble sincerity and use to express yourself the things that surround you, the images of your dreams and the objects of your memory. If your everyday life seems poor to you, do not accuse it; accuse yourself, tell yourself you are not poet enough to summon up its riches; since for the creator there is no poverty and no poor or unimportant place. And even if you were in a prison whose walls allowed none of the sounds of the world to reach your senses — would you not still have always your childhood, that precious, royal richness, that treasure house of memories? Turn your attention there. Try to raise the submerged sensations of that distant past; your personality will grow stronger, your solitude will extend itself and will become a twilit dwelling which the noise of others passes by in the distance.
And if from this turning inwards, from this sinking into your private world, there come verses, you will not think to ask anyone whether they are good verses. You will not attempt, either, to interest journals in these works: for you will see in them your own dear genuine possession, a portion and a voice of your life. A work of art is good if it has grown out of necessity.
-Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926), Letters to a Young Poet
Buying this book containing collection of 10 letters has been my greatest investment in these past 2 months I would say for an unbelievably low price for a priceless collection of letters by Rilke. I think everyone immersed in art or literature (or life) should at least encounter this piece of beautifully-written advices addressed by Rilke to a distant stranger named Franz Xaver Kappus, who had been corresponding with him for around 2 years. Rilke the solitary great poet in European history, the “hermit”, the “postal confessor” writes in a very humble manner for someone as great as he is. And one thing I can’t bear from reading the very first paragraph, I felt like crying for each sentence offers a slight sense of intimacy and is undeniably powerful, maybe because it’s a personal letter. This is a kind of book that I can possibly read more than once, even twice. Last but not least, following the advice of this great man, I will try as best as possible from now on to decline being endowed with muse coming from such impulse to write lame love poems. Pfft.
And where a great and unique man speaks, small men must keep silence.
-Franz Xaver Kappus.
She worked with total dedication until her late twenties. She met many people through her work, and several men showed interest in her, but their relationships proved short and shallow. Nutmeg could never take a deep interest in living human beings. Her mind was filled with images of clothing, and a man’s designs had a far more visceral impact on her than the man himself ever could.
When she turned twenty-seven, though, Nutmeg was introduced to a strange-looking man at an industry New Year’s party. The man’s features were regular enough, but his hair was a wild mass, and his nose and chin had the hard sharpness of stone tools. He looked more like some phony preacher than a designer of women’s clothing. He was a year younger than Nutmeg, as thin as a wire, and had eyes of bottomless depth, from which he looked at people with an aggressive stare that seemed deliberately designed to make them feel uncomfortable. In his eyes, though, Nutmeg was able to see her own reflection. At the time, he was an unknown but up-and-coming designer, and the two were meeting for the first time. She had, of course, heard people talking about him. He had a unique talent, they said, but he was arrogant and egotistical and argumentative, liked by almost no one.
- Haruki Murakami, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
The part in which he describes the man, it blew my mind away that I had to quote it.
I look up at the sky, wondering if I’ll catch a glimpse of kindness there, but I don’t. All I see are indifferent summer clouds drifting over the Pacific. And they have nothing to say to me. Clouds are always taciturn. I probably shouldn’t be looking up at them. What I should be looking at is inside of me. Like staring down into a deep well. Can I see kindness there? No, all I see is my own nature. My own individual, stubborn, uncooperative, often selfcentered nature that still doubts itself — that, when troubles occur, tries to find something funny, or something nearly funny, about the situation. I’ve carried this character around like an old suitcase, down a long, dusty path. I’m not carrying it because I like it. The contents are too heavy, and it looks crummy, fraying in spots. I’ve carried it with me because there was nothing else I was supposed to carry. Still, I guess I have grown attached to it. As you might expect.
- H. Murakami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running