The Literate Kitten is up and meowing, once again, after an extended hiatus during which, we regret to say, we succumbed to the busy-ness of work and play in the modern world—to wit: We watched too much TV. We admit this as a way of reminding ourselves of how easily we can be lulled into lazy thinking and lazy living, even as we object to media saturation—the glib sound bite, the shallow summary of complex ideas, the unchallenged blurring of fact and opinion—exemplified, we think, by our illustrious elected CEO, George W. Bush, who, when asked about his reading habits, opined, “I read the newspaper.”—sloppy thinking, and the overall degradation of the English language. The Literate Kitten does not intend to consciously contribute to the growing tonnage of cultural crap, and we apologize in advance if we do not succeed. As much as anything else, this is an exercise in improving the intellectual process. We invite you along for the journey. —LK
Swann’s Way: First impressions
As is my wont, I am reading several books, simultaneously. (One cannot live on Proust alone!) The list of recommended books that I’m reading appears after this entry. However, one of the lot in particular made me uneasy. Not because of its subject matter (9/11), but because the personal experiences recounted therein (the book’s raison d’etre, in fact) were so…well, ordinary. Bland. Even indifferent. Because the use of language in these first-person accounts was so…ordinary. Bland. Even indifferent.
The book I refer to is “Report from Ground Zero” by Dennis Smith. Admittedly, this book is not pretending to be literary or highbrow or anything close to that. But, as a reader and as a U.S. citizen who lived during Sept. 11, 2001, I had hoped to take some meaningful experience away from one of the nation’s most profound collective experiences in recent memory.
“Report from Ground Zero” makes for an odd corollary to “In Search of Lost Time.” Yet, a mere 100 pages into “Swann’s Way,” I cannot help but compare this rich reading experience to the paltry morsel passed along by Dennis Smith and his editors.
Take this “Swann’s Way” passage, excerpted from a longer rumination about sleep:
“…But it was enough if, in my own bed, my sleep was deep and allowed my mind to relax entirely; then it would let go of the map of the place where I had fallen asleep and, when I woke in the middle of the night, since I did not know where I was, I did not even understand in the first moment who I was; I had only, in its original simplicity, the sense of existence as it may quiver in the depths of an animal; I was more destitute than a cave dweller; but then the memory—not yet of the place where I was, but of several of those where I had lived and where I might have been—would come to me like help from on high to pull me out of the void from which I would not have got out on my own; I crossed centuries of civilization in one second, and the image confusedly glimpsed of oil lamps, then of wing-collar shirts, gradually recomposed my self’s original features.”
Compare that passage to this first-person account of events at the World Trade Center on 9/11 (excerpted from “Report from Ground Zero):
“When I looked at the carnage that was there, the devastation, and what had just transpired with the two collapses…I looked around, and my personal thoughts were that nobody survived this. This was not a six-story building coming down—this was the equivalent of an earthquake.”
Or this one:
“I knew I had the biggest event of my life when those towers came down. No one would ever, ever even dream about something like that. Marine 6 was transmitting over the air, and everyone started yelling, Urgent! Over the radio—tower 2 had just come down.”
Or this one, if you still don’t believe me:
“Things were still raining down on the street, and it was an unbelievable, just an unbelievable sight, like a Bruce Willis movie. But this wasn’t stopping.”
The difference between Proust’s description of disrupted sleep and many (not all) of the firefighters’ ruminations in Smith’s book illustrates the power of clear language combined with precision of observation, and the corresponding lack we feel when we do not pay attention to these things—an issue, I can’t help but surmise, that is an overarching concern of Proust in his work, “In Search of Lost Time.”
Time is elusive, ephemeral, Proust seems to be saying: Time does its work on us. Even in his opening pages, the author reminds us of death with the act of death we partake of each night, sleep. He infuses one ordinary piece of this action (waking up during sleep) with layer upon layer of detail, until the act is so particular, so grounded, that we cannot help but feel the immensity of even such a small experience as waking from sleep. Isn’t this a way of preserving what time takes away from us?
What can be immortal, in spite of us, are the words we set down on paper, is what I hear Proust whisper from between each sheet.
If Proust could immortalize the homely act of sleeping, what could (or should) author Smith have made of an unprecedented and catastrophic historical event? If nothing else, 9/11 exposed our mortality, point blank. What an occasion this would have been, to take back some of our ownership in eternity! What a way to pay homage to those who died, recording events to such a degree that all readers from that point on would experience each moment as if it were their own! What beauty could have been wrought from an ugly moment, had the eyewitnesses plumbed their depths for the most precise words, the most thoughtful reflections? Instead, a mighty chance was squandered by the low-level skills of an untrained author, by the carelessness of lackadaisical editors, by the greed of a publisher who rushed a sloppy manuscript into print, most likely to take advantage of a still-grieving population. This lost chance, this glut of imprecision, is a legacy of our fast-paced, media-saturated culture.
I suppose it is unfair to compare a firefighter’s words to those of a French literary genius. But is precise observation and exacting use of language the sole purview of the intellectual or academic elite, and if so, is that what we want them to be?
Thank you, M Proust, for at least raising the question.
Recommended reading from what I have most recently finished: “Down and Out in Paris and London,” George Orwell and “My Century,” Alexander Wat. More to come as I finish…