Sunday, August 04, 2013

Critical Distance

This is one of my favorite passages from Howards End by E.M. Forster, one of my favorite books:

Margaret realised the chaotic nature of our daily life, and its difference from the orderly sequence that has been fabricated by historians. Actual life is full of false clues and sign-posts that lead nowhere. With infinite effort we nerve ourselves for a crisis that never comes. The most successful career must show a waste of strength that might have removed mountains, and the most unsuccessful is not that of the man who is taken unprepared, but of him who has prepared and is never taken. On a tragedy of that kind our national morality is duly silent. It assumes that preparation against danger is in itself a good, and that men, like nations, are the better for staggering through life fully armed. The tragedy of preparedness has scarcely been handled, save by the Greeks. Life is indeed dangerous, but not in the way morality would have us believe. It is indeed unmanageable, but the essence of it is not a battle. It is unmanageable because it is a romance, and its essence is romantic beauty. Margaret hoped that for the future she would be less cautious, not more cautious, than she had been in the past.

Earlier today I was thinking of writing about distance. One of the strategies to save yourself from feeling pain is to remain cautious. We know it doesn't work, movies and books tell us this all the time, but we have to go and learn it ourselves. There's no way around pain, and by trying to spare yourself the pain you spare yourself the connection and the feeling of belonging, too. Sometimes, even, you cause a greater pain.

I was thinking about this in relation to creating something.  You have to be in something completely to create it, but to form it you have to have distance. Sometimes you have to have distance to create something at all - a different way of seeing or a way of seeing outside of what's happening.  I suppose this is why the classic writer is a loner.  Yes, that feeling of being outsider works brilliantly for being an artist, or creating something about the world you live in. Works brilliantly for scientists, too.   Where it doesn't work so brilliantly is in human relations.  If you keep yourself from participating, you keep yourself from feeling.  You may keep a critical distance, but if you do that when you're supposed to be involved, you can shortchange yourself. 

I don't know that there is much point to this post, except that I've always had a strategy to keep an eye on things, mainly in a controlling sense to make sure everything is okay, nothing is messy, and no one gets hurt. Then, of course, with theater training, keeping track in case anything can be used later, and analyzing behavior.  It's good for seeing a big picture, and it's good for safety, but for some things (living your life as it comes), it's not very helpful. I'm not even thinking I have done this for some feeling of wanting to be a great artist of some kind. That may be a dream, but never a day to day goal. The outside eye, though, needs to be covered every once in a while.  It's a hard muscle to select how to use once you have it. You don't really feel like you can blink.

Another literary reference I've always remembered in this regard is Trigorin, in the Seagull - 

Here I am talking to you, excited and delighted, yet never for one moment do I forget that there is an unfinished story waiting for me indoors. I see a cloud shaped like a grand piano. I think: I must mention somewhere in a story that a cloud went by, shaped like a grand piano. I smell heliotrope. I say to myself: Sickly smell, mourning shade, must be mentioned in describing a summer evening. I lie in wait for each phrase, for each word that falls from my lips or yours and hasten to lock all these words and phrases away in my literary storeroom: they may come in handy some day. When I finish a piece of work, I fly to the theatre or go fishing, in the hope of resting, of forgetting myself, but no, a new subject is already turning, like a heavy iron ball, in my brain, some invisible force drags me to my table and I must make haste to write and write. And so on for ever and ever. I have no rest from myself; I feel that I am devouring my own life, that for the honey which I give to unknown mouths out in the void, I rob my choicest flowers of their pollen, pluck the flowers themselves and trample on their roots.

The outside eye. Critical distance. I think it's possible that it can be less torturous that Trigorin, that hopefully there is a way to stop analyzing and look up at choice moments, stop trying to figure it out.  I know there's a practice for it. I also know I'm not alone, or Power Of Now wouldn't have sold as many copies as it did.  I'll skirt excessive cultural criticism, hopefully, but I'll just say the advent of video and cameras haven't made it much easier.  Or blogs, for that matter.


No easy answers, but maybe a little less distance a little more of the time is the answer. Having faith that the rest will take care of itself, and you'll remember things to write down later when you need to.


Elizabeth said...

I love the first Forster passage and your reflections about it. It made me think, at once, of how we react to terrorist threats -- how so much of foreign "policy" and of history in general, is reactions based on fear and paranoia. There is much to think about in this post -- I'm so glad that you're writing regularly here.

Criticlasm said...

Thank you - I'm so glad. I wrote this right before bed, and I woke up thinking, "Did that make any sense?"

And yes, Forster was so brilliant in seeing that. It is how we live so much of the time, and it is all over politics - pre-emptive strike.