Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Consolations of the Lost

Perhaps one of the most famous lost notebooks is a collection of the mathematician Ramanujan's notes from the last year of his life, though it was only designated as 'lost' when it was found. This is, I believe, an example of irony, or at least it appears as such from my perspective. The line that it was, for mathematicians, the equivalent of discovering a tenth symphony by Beethoven, non-mathematicians, is interesting. It implies that Ramanujan's book could be somehow appreciated by mathematicians in much the same way as a Beethoven symphony could by music-lovers (a set which of course would include mathematicians), and this is obviously flawed in just the right way to point up one of the central concerns underlying this blog.

That enquiry is: what is the relation between a thing (obtainable or otherwise) and those other things that are asserted to be its equivalents? What can I really produce here: an imitation of the notebook, or a type of detailed allusion to it? The role of will is obviously crucial: the original notebook was constructed by a series of accumulations of more or less unrelated decisions to write, and its identity as a single notebook was not particularly intended. By losing it, however, its identity has now become unfortunately singular. But is the act of will required to produce a version of it, however fragmentary in process or result, similarly singular?

While I ruminate on this theme (which has, naturally, only presented itself as a result of loss), I thought it might be entertaining to begin a list of the lost. There are, of course, lots of far more prestigious examples of books gone missing than my miserable case, and many of these were gathered in Stuart B. Kelly's witty Book of Lost Books, a highly-recommended guide for those struggling to come to terms with this particular experience. The consolation of contemplating just how many books -- philosophic treatises, novels, plays and poems -- have gone missing over and because of the millennia is, to put it mildly, debatable, but in the absence of other effective therapies, one can but try.

I rather liked this passage in Charlotte Higgins' piece on the Greeks in the Guardian a few weeks ago:

'We will never completely grasp ancient Greece. An enormous wealth of literature, art, architecture and other artefacts have survived but, for every survival, there are a thousand losses. We have 20 dramas by Euripides, but we know that his complete works numbered 90 plays. For Aeschylus, we have seven out of 90 extant. And for Sophocles, just seven out of 123. Works that were seen as masterpieces in antiquity are nothing but dust, ashes and the occasional quote in other texts.'

During the same summer that the notebook recorded with a degree of closeness I can fantasise about, but no longer assess, I was struck by a passage in Maria Rosa Menocal's fascinating book on what we persist in thinking of as Moorish Spain, The Ornament of the World. She was writing about Ibn Hazm's little book, The Neck-Ring of the Dove, an impressively influential work: its brief catalogue of thirty of the major tropes of Arabic love poetry finds echoes in the troubadours, courtly lovers, sonneteers and concettists of successive centuries. Menocal says, 'This resume of complex conceits, and some of the poetry that exemplified them, was a work of powerful nostalgia and recolection, both personal and communal...The Neck-Ring was a tribute to a world of courtliness that Ibn Hazm had just seen obliterated, and that seemed every day more likely to vanish completely.'

As pertinently for this blog, it was among the few which survived of the works of this cantankerous old man of eleventh century Andalusian letters, who wrote around four hundred books.

Another important Medieval writer, this time from the Abbasid rather than the Umayyad end of the Arabic world, was the tenth-century traveller from Baghdad, Mas'udi. I bought his Meadows of Gold in that nifty little Penguin series on Great Journeys (everyone should acquaint themselves with a few of these -- Chekhov's account of his journey to Sakhalin Island, for instance, has already marked itself as one of those books that people 'borrow' from me and never return). It's full of what often turns out to be the first appearances of nagging little details you remember from elsewhere -- the Jewish kingdom of the Khazars, for instance, though one that stood out for me was the first reference to what is present-day Somalia (I was translating the great Somali poet Gaariye with Martin Orwin throughout this period): 'The whole of this coast is without resources, and its one export today is the incense called kundur [frankincense].'

As you've no doubt anticipated, Mas'udi wrote thirty six books, of which only two survive, the titles of which are delightful enough to require quoting in full: The Meadows of Gold and Mines of Precious Gems, and The Book of Admonition and Revision. That latter name could well stand as a draft title for the final goal of this project, a version of a notebook that was never intended to be a book, a version which is inevitably incomplete, but only in reference to that notebook, itself an extract from an ongoing project.

Any further examples of lost works you care to send me will receive a sorrowful welcome here.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

A Visit to the Hypnotist

In recent weeks I've taken to wandering the streets crying out like the ghost of Whitman, 'Oh notebook, my notebook! You were my library and playpark, my outer dream and my inner net!' I also hang out in North Shields Netto asking the refrigerated chickens in a Ginsbergian frenzy, 'Are you my notebook?'

No I don't. I'm so busy I'm struggling to put down the next five entries for this blog which I have 'written' in my head (more on this concept of what is already 'written' in the mind elsewhere.) But recently (before I went off to a festival and on a tour and embarked on mucho teaching), having just done a reading, I was having a quiet pint outside Venezuala's Bolivar Hall, just off the Tottenham Court Road, with brother brodyagi Andy Croft and Paul Summers. I'd gone through the potential scenarios of partial recovery, including a return to Moscow, when Paul said why not visit a hypnotist?

This immediately seemed a necessary part of this very project -- and I was encouraged by his tale of a composer who had retrieved an entire lost manuscript by this method, which put a similar goal in my mind.

I didn't only want to know where and when I might have lost the notebook, I wanted that particular twenty page passage from it concerning the trip we had taken to Moscow. Here were the closely-detailed descriptions of stations and passengers -- and the beginnings of drafts -- I particularly needed if my portion of the book was to go ahead according to my usual compositional method.

So I duly visited the hypnotist, who lived in a bungalow in Ponteland and specialised in past life regression, and found he was an old habitue of the Newcastle writing scene, and had known the likes of George Charlton in the early nineties, before I'd moved to the North East. Perhaps this (hypnotism? reincarnation?) is what happens to a percentage of all writers or readers of poetry. Whether influenced by his own past or not, he was certainly happy to try regressing me to two periods -- one the week before when the notebook had been lost, and the other six months previous to that in Moscow -- in the hope that some key details would re-emerge. But, he warned me, chances were fifty-fifty in such cases.

I set out the same recorder I'd taken round the Metro, capturing the clangs and whooshes, thunderings and clip-footed hurryings of that underground system, and was first relaxed, though without the twangs, plinks and plashings of the proffered muzak, and then encouraged to visualise a Secure Place. This, for me, is our bed in Crete, enveloped in the great cube of a mosquito net (or whatever you call a box where the sides are rectangles), but with window and french windows open to the hillside. I used to like sneaking in for a siesta and listening to the hoarse shout of cicadas on the the vine, a few tardy cockerels, and the sealion-meets-bicycle horn bark of a particularly unfortunate dog. In such scenarios, the notebook would always be tucked snugly under my pillow with a pen.

I was then taken back in what I supposed was a shallow trance (it was no doubt much deeper than I realised), attempting to access memories of first the more distant, and second the more proximate time. In each case I was surprised, firstly by how vivid the sense of inhabiting the memory was, and secondly by how much an act of will this was, by how clearly it was a memory I was riffling through as one riffles through papers, and not a reliving of a preserved experience.

I had, for instance, a strong impression of walking backwards and forwards surreptitiously recording the sound of the escalators in the first station we visited, Planernaya. I also had a vivid image of my feet marching along beneath me as I headed for the car on the fateful morning of Loss of Notebook. But everything was shot through with unlit spaces in which I began to distract myself half-consciously, half-hypnogogically with the image of the notebook as a koala bear's nose. Some aspect of me clearly wasn't taking things seriously enough.

I shouldn't have been surprised by that strong sense that this was not a live unfolding of a somehow recorded event, having done a collaborative project on the nature of memory with the eminent neuropsychologist Martin Conway, and having had conversations on this subject with the novelist and neuropsychologist Charles Ferneyhough, I was quite aware that each memory is a construct, rebuilt each time according to the viewpoint of the self you are at the point of recall, rather than a distinct object, perfectly preserved in the brain. I was even aware that this concept of the memory was likely to interfere with a process of hypnosis which assumed the possibility of perfect recall. I was all round too aware for the kind of flat-out sybilline intoning I had hoped for.

Equally, I knew fine that the carefully-assembled visualisation I was attempting was a mild version of the sort of inner journeying I had embarked on during my more chemically-stimulated twenties, and that a vivid interior life, borrowing from the eidetic states between sleeping and waking and including marsupials and, frequently, Mark E. Smith, was already very much part of my creative processes.

But I was heartened by the hypnotist's advice that this was a process strengthened by practice, and to a certain extent this has proven to be the case. I can now, through a process of self-hypnosis roughly parallel to the state of savasana I've been popping myself into since adolescence, strongly imagine the notebook and very roughly 'read' its contents, even though this does not amount to a process of dictation from some inner muse, and this in turn stimulates more detailed memories of the Moscow trip than I would otherwise experience. Hope stirs in the busiest of pigeon-shaped bosoms.

Of course, when I checked, I found I hadn't switched the recorder on.