Reading habits

… you would know with a book you love:
How nothing held your eyes
The way the words did, with archer-focus:
How each arrow heading toward you
Was slowed by the dripping beehive
On its spike—
– from “Honey/Manila Portfolio” by Farnoosh Fathi

“The love of books. My library is an archive of longings.”
– Susan Sontag

What are you reading these days? he asks. By reading, he means, of course, for leisure.

I say, David Harvey’s A Brief History of Neoliberalism, Jonathan Crary’s 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, and Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

What? Why? His face, incredulous.

At first I think to reply, Why not, then I realize the import of his query.

There were years when I read a minimum of seven poems a day, upon waking, during mealtime breaks, before sleep. There were years when I recited Sylvia Plath while running. There were years when I felt like my thoughts, my impressions and expressions, my dreams waxed poetic, or maybe that was mere vanity. In any case, I live prosaic days now, and call it names like focus, usefulness, and duty. I read articles on violence, death, and violent deaths, sleep late, and never have nightmares. Sometimes I kind of miss wresting myself awake, heart racing, from images of chopped-off heads and limbs strewn on the ground in a forest clearing, ruby-eyed crows pecking at soiled, ripped skirts in bloodstained kitchens.

He tells her to read Terry Pratchett. I concur, and say, read Small Gods for a critique of religion, and Feet of Clay for a critique of racism, capitalist relations, and class hierarchy. They look at me, and then at one another. He says, I like Color of Magic for worldbuilding. I say, Pratchett is very funny — it’s so hard to be funny.

I feel boring, but even I don’t wait for my personality to seem interesting again.

I ask her why she hasn’t finished her master’s thesis. It’s been years, I say. Your argument on Kantian freedom is ripe and perspicuous. She says, I have yet to read enough poems — I am still collecting words.

In the past three years or so, I sold almost all of my copies of the classics of English literature — about half of my library. Now that I’ve been assigned to teach a survey course on canonical works from the British Romantic Period to the 20th century, I’ve been buying new copies of old titles I’d thought I wouldn’t need to revisit.

The other day, after attending a lecture on Roman philosophy at the Ateneo, I dropped by Fullybooked and left with a copy of Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. Earlier, after a class on Robert Browning’s dramatic monologues, I went into Bookay-Ukay and came out with only Michael Curtis’ Great Political Thinkers Volume 1, even if I also saw a rare copy of Karen Cushman’s Catherine Called Birdy.

Birdy, the adolescent daughter of a medieval squire, introduced my grade school self to feminist thought, though I didn’t know the term “feminism” then. In high school I would read Soheir Khashoggi’s Mirage, Jessie Bernard’s The Future of Marriage, Zhou Wei Hui’s Shanghai Baby, the Songs of Solomon and the Book of Ruth (and the entire Bible, actually, even the part that only told me who begat whom), call myself feminist, and decide never to marry.

Not a decade after that, when I was the acquisitions editor of a publishing house, I read Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, and David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress. And I thought, any man I’d consider marrying should first read these books.

I think the only man I considered marrying would simply hate those books, if he had chosen to read them, or me, at all, carefully.

Reading on the Victorian John Stuart Mill, I thought, he seems like the kind of philosopher who’d make a good husband — he was gainfully and meaningfully employed as a civil servant, was utilitarian but not crude and materialistic, championed women’s rights, promoted civil liberties and responsibilities, supported economic democracy and worker cooperatives over capitalist businesses, and critiqued the environmental damages wrought by unrestricted economic growth. He was, however, pro-imperialism; he served as a colonial administrator of the East India Company from the age of 17, and thought that “barbaric” peoples could not be accorded the same rights as “civilized” ones — but then, one can think only  so far beyond the way one’s subjectivity has been constituted through one’s social milieu.

Raised by his father and Jeremy Bentham to become a genius, “the crown prince of the Philosophic Radical movement” that had rationalism and the principle of utility at the core of its ideology, Mill pondered emptiness and suicide in his early twenties. Overcoming suicide ideation, he dedicated his life to social justice, invigorated by the poetry of the English Romantics, especially Wordsworth, and spurred by his friendship and correspondence with the philosopher and women’s rights advocate, Harriet Taylor, whom he eventually married. By all accounts, he admired and cherished his wife, of whom he wrote, upon her death,

Were I [but] capable of interpreting to the world one half the great thoughts and noble feelings which are buried in her grave, I should be the medium of a greater benefit to it, than is ever likely to arise from anything that I can write, unprompted and unassisted by her all but unrivalled wisdom.

I know why I’m not reading as much poetry and fiction as I used to. It’s the same reason I listen to sad lyrics only when they’re put to a happy, danceable tune, why I stage absence, why I no longer write write, as I had been writing.

The last novel I (re)read was Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. In an early chapter, Lord Henry Wotton remarks to the lovelorn painter Basil Hallward, “What you have told me is quite a romance, a romance of art one might call it, and the worst of having a romance of any kind is that it leaves one so unromantic.”

It’s nice to imagine that behind every mundane insipidity or listless productivity might lurk a history of folly, a tender tale.


Unearthed: Nap Time

The following is a flash fiction piece I wrote when I was 16 for CW 10.

The lights were switched off and the curtains draped over the half­-open windows, filtering the early afternoon light. The ceiling fans droned on and on in their orbit, their motion hypnotic, their sound somnolent. Air heavy with lethargy pervaded the classroom, its walls plastered with watercolored sheets, and hung over rows of desks upon which the children lay slumped, their arms cushioning their heads as they slept—or pretended to. It was naptime, and anyone whom Sister Angie (who had four eyes) caught not sleeping would be told off. And so the children slept—or pretended to. A certain little girl tried to sleep, tried her very best to, but she couldn’t. So she tried to pretend to be sleeping, tried very hard to, and she managed—but only barely. Restless, she squirmed in her seat, her mind filled with the image of the toilet, its smooth, ivory seat, its caves and curves, its well of water, and warm yellow piss gushing into it in furious spurts. Oh, how she wanted to relieve herself! But she did not. She should have been sleeping at the time after all; she did not want to disappoint Sister Angie (who was very kind to her). And so, restless, she squirmed in her seat, and tried to repress the urge to let go (which was so easy really—only, she would have to bear with the wetness and the taunts and the shame)—by squeezing her thighs together, hard. She squeezed them and rubbed them and pressed them together (as she squirmed in her seat, restless) and then an unfamiliar feeling washed over her—throbbing—taut (like a violin string stretched tightly, trembling, quivering as it created sound). She found it strange and strangely pleasurable. The following day found her doing it again (not knowing what it was but hiding it) during naptime, and again the naptime after that, and after that, and so on. And her thoughts wandered beyond the image of the toilet, with its smooth, ivory seat, its caves and curves, its well of water, and warm yellow piss gushing into it in furious spurts.

The collector of maladies

The highlight of today’s writing workshop for my freshman composition class was a story about pain. A 16-year-old boy had written a piece about a 25-year-old woman, a self-confessed masochist who inflicted pain on herself (cutting through her skin, punching walls until her knuckles bled, inserting barbed wires and barbecue sticks into “her womanhood”), not to feel pleasure, but “to relax,” to numb emotional hurt, to “find freedom” from the circumstances of her life. The boy worried that his piece was “too brutal.” I said it was not brutal enough. His classmates all said they could not feel any sympathy for the protagonist, because they could neither grasp her avowed fascination for pain, nor understand the emotional conflict that supposedly fed this fascination. As one of his classmates pointed out, the character’s woes were workaday: Her father cheated on her mother and took off with another woman; her mother could barely make ends meet; she dropped out of school. The classmate said, I know people in the exact same situation. They don’t go about poking barbecue sticks up their coochies.

The classic fault of the piece:  too much telling, hardly ever showing. We were told that the girl bled herself to keep calm. We were not shown the rusty blade held between the tips of her brown, bony fingers, the way it sliced across three inches of skin in her inner thigh, the blood snaking down her legs, dyeing a small clear puddle on the chipped white tiles of their bathroom floor as she hummed to the steady dripping of the broken faucet and the bawling baby next door. Pain, if you think about it, is fascinating. Feeling it fully, acutely, holds you in rapt attention, puts you out of time—past, present, future blur into a relentless drone of hurt hurt hurt.

The boy’s piece reminded me of a story I had wanted to write after reading Wittgenstein’s discussion of pain in Philosophical Investigations, a story about a collector of maladies. The protagonist of this story is also a woman who travels alone, inscribing in her body an archive of pain. She has three conditions for pain to be included in her collection: 1. It should be a particular sensation she has not felt before; 2. It must be self-inflicted, and it must leave a lasting, visible mark (burnt tissue, a scar, a broken tooth), and; 3. It has to be a reconstruction of another person’s injury. So this woman travels from city to city to meet the damaged, asking them the story behind their wounds, and writing the same scars on her body. The woman in that story in my head is in her mid-thirties. Five years of traveling and self-maiming has so disfigured her that she is no longer recognizable to her friends and family. People shun her, bearing so many grotesque wounds. Her body is failing, yet she does not want to die.

I cannot yet write that story. I don’t know how to access and describe such variegated pains, and have yet to think through the motivations of someone who would so ardently seek out hurt and own it. If one thinks through a feeling body, what could be going on in her mind? How could her self have changed through a connoisseur course of hurt? Do I have to feel pain myself to accurately describe another person’s pain? In inflicting the same wounds on myself, could I be said to have the same pain as that felt by the person whose wounds I recreate? If I open myself to another’s expression of his hurt so that I may, even on an intellectual level, “feel” it, could I close myself up again and be whole?

I told the boy, if you wish to write about pain, you must know pain, feel pain, express pain. If the kind of research and reflection that rewriting your piece demands proves to be too difficult, feel free to change your topic.