Patience, and some useful quotations about it and other subjects (for writers and readers)

For a long while, Patience was going to have an epigraph – on the first page of the novel; before ‘1979’ and ‘Please be patient with me’. But I cut it.

It was this Franz Kafka aphorism:

There are two cardinal human sins from which all others derive: impatience and indolence. Because of impatience they were expelled from Paradise, because of indolence they do not return. But perhaps there is only one cardinal sin: impatience. Because of impatience they were expelled, because of impatience they do not return.

In the end, I didn’t want to interrupt Elliott’s voice – to make the book appear more literary, or theological, than it already did.

One of the strangest things about Kafka’s aphorism is that he seems to change his mind, or refine his idea, even within these few words. I think this makes his argument more powerful – because it dramatizes a human temporality, and a human frailty. Look, I am getting it wrong right in front of your eyes. It also emphasizes that this is not a conventionally cute epigrammatic statement of the sort A is to B as C is to D. That sort of aperçu opens out into comparison; the word widens the world. Instead, Kafka’s wording is a narrowing down to or a closing in on the single sin, impatience.

There were other things said or written about patience that I didn’t intend to include, not in the printed version of the book, but which I wrote down in my notebooks.

One was Henry James’s line, ‘be one of those on whom nothing is lost’. This comes from ‘The Art of Fiction’. Every writer should know it.

But most of the quotations I copied into the front of the three big black notebooks in which I wrote Patience were glimpses of the kind of writing I thought it required, and reminders to myself to commit to that fully.

I’m going to put them down here, in the order they appear on those pages. I notice now that most of them are from Rainer Maria Rilke. Behind them all (but not copied out) is this passage from the sort-of novel The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. I first saw it excerpted in the book of translations by Stephen Mitchell that Picador published. (If you haven’t read Rilke before, I would recommend that as a perfect beginning.) There it was called ‘What does a poem take?’

For the sake of a few lines one must see many cities, men and things. One must know the animals, one must feel how the birds fly and know the gesture with which the small flowers open in the morning. One must be able to think back to roads in unknown regions, to unexpected meetings and to partings which one had long seen coming; to days of childhood that are still unexplained, to parents that one had to hurt when they brought one some joy and one did not grasp it (it was joy for someone else); to childhood illness that so strangely began with a number of profound and grave transformations, to days in rooms withdrawn and quiet and to mornings by the sea, to the sea itself, to seas, to nights of travel that rushed along on high and flew with all the stars-and it is not enough if one may think all of this. One must have memories of many nights of love, none of which was like the others, of the screams of women in labor, and of light, white, sleeping women in childbed, closing again. But one must also have been beside the dying, one must have sat beside the dead in the room with the open window and the fitful noises. And still it is not enough to have memories. One must be able to forget them when they are many, and one must have the great patience to wait until they come again. For it is not yet the memories themselves. Not until they have turned to blood within us, to glance, to gesture, nameless and no longer to be distinguished from ourselves-not until then can it happen that in a most rare hour the first word of a verse arises in their midst and goes forth from them.

The way women are mentioned in it is questionable, at the very least. And, yes, this seems extremely romantic, and also dismayingly exacting, but I think it’s true. Or true, at least, for the poetry, and other writing, that I value most – which, above nearly all, is Rilke’s own.

One of the first copied quotations was from Michael Hamburger’s translation of Holderlin’s ‘Prayer for the Incurable’.

Hurry, denature them wholly, up against frightful non-being

            Bring them, or never they’ll know just how denatured they are.

I am sure I don’t understand this, not in any way. But I think it’s about a way of perceiving and recording; it’s about how strange and estranged one has to be, in re-presenting experience.

Next is:

We can only see what we are by looking ahead of ourselves…

Which comes from Merleau-Ponty’s astounding essay, ‘Cezanne’s Doubt’, Sense and Non-Sense, 1964. I keep rereading this. It’s full of head-rearranging things.

We can only see what we are by looking ahead of ourselves…

This includes Elliott’s white wall.

The next is a single line from the podcast S-Town, from the makers of This American Life. If you haven’t listened to it, please do. It is the most unpredictable and anguishing piece of storytelling I have heard, in that form. I think it’s spoken by the main person in the documentary, John B. McLemore:

“You just learn to live without.”

I am not sure what Rilke is describing in this next quotation – from the Letters on Cézanne – but it’s what Elliott is noticing throughout the book. event which most people no longer had the patience to experience…

With, hopefully, this kind of sensuous intensity:

One taste of the orange… After that, who

could forget how it drowns in itself, yet resists its

own sweetness? But look, you have caught it,

            possessed it –

it’s taste, now deliciously changed into you

This is ‘Orange’, by Rainer Maria Rilke, from Orpheus, a wonderful book of translations by Don Paterson.

Finally, there is this observation – which I’d almost call a manifesto. When writing, all the senses should be simultaneously and equally alive. How little writing achieves this. If nothing else, it’s an ideal. These words are in Rainer Maria Rilke, Primal Sound, pg 130.

At one period, when I began to interest myself in Arabic poems, which seem to owe their existence to the simultaneous and equal contributions from all five senses, it struck me for the first time, that the modern European poet makes use of those contributors singly and in very varying degree, only one of them – sight overladen with the seen world – seeming to dominate him constantly; how slight, by contrast, is the contribution he receives from inattentive hearing, not to speak of the indifference of the other senses, which are active only on the periphery of consciousness and with many interruptions within the limited sphere of their practical activity. And yet the perfect poem can only materialize on condition that the world, acted upon by all five levers simultaneously, is seen, under a definite aspect, on the supernatural plane, which is, in fact the plane of the poem.