The Island Of The Day Before
On good days, few islanders stay up thinking about the waters that lash on the island's sides. Lovers hold hand by the shores and watch sunsets. But it is love that preoccupies them. Not, the sun or the water. Neither does the lover think if it is the temperature gradient between air and water that makes him perspire or if it is the anxiety of the prospect of touching her. The touch of one skin onto another is what preoccupies him or her. Nearby, industries dump sewage into the island’s bays, but it is the chemical refuse and treatment costs that animates the polluter’s thoughts. Not the changing level of acidity or gender mutation among fish. To live actively, fully, on an island, is to ignore the one thing that surrounds it - water. It is an human, an all too human condition, that the swamps from which we emerge, rarely occupy us once we build cities on top. Its filth and muck disinterest us, till we face Death when the extraordinary fact of Life itself, or merely ones own living, gives those original waters new meaning. Suddenly, all that was sacrificed and ignored seems worthy of investigation. The prospect of end renews the desire to begin anew. All art forms that cook better when broiled in the furnace of solitude - writing, painting, sculpture - and are spiced by the individual’s anxieties give birth to artists who slowly become islands, surrounded by the mainland of humanity. Of these forms writing, perhaps, is the most solitudinal of all pursuits. Painters sometimes collaborate on large canvases, sculptors work with teams, but the writer is a truly singular in a physical sense as well. There isn’t much to do. Just sit and let ones fingers move and minds wander. Life happens elsewhere, but not on the desk.
The more a writer burrows into the society he belongs, like a rodent in search of consciousness, the more he discovers that the mud he’s scraped out to go deeper, now blocks the daylight he left behind. His idea of Life becomes an abstraction. He must write out of his memory, out of the possibilities that life proffers to his imagination. Here too, it is his imagination’s understanding of life that looms, not life itself. For, who knows what that objective reality called life is. Life on the outside, the real splenetic aggressively earnest existence on train platforms and farmlands, between men and women, mocks the author, taunts him. Come write me into being, she says. Like a streetwalker in tights with a generous bosom and an alluring smile, the welcome in her eye which is easily mistook for eternal love, even if this eternity may only be a night, the author who chases the visible finiteness of the world, in the name of verisimilitude sets himself up for defeat. In stead if, like a hero of some ancient tale who must cross successive doors to arrive at the treasure, if we bow and respect the impossibility of portraying Life as it is, then the mind opens another door where an invisible infinite awaits us. This is a world of the day before. Before memories are formed, before divisions and categories are yet to take root. This is a world where evil and good are possible and interchangeable. Few writers get into this antechamber of human existence, for the sirens of realism lure and swallow most of them. Those who manage to get past, through craft or craftiness, must tackle the undifferentiated whole of humanity that lies within each of us. It is then, impossible, to reduce humans to this or that or to traduce oneself as all too different. Instead, this writer sees all as contiguous forms of one’s own self. To the outside world, looming portentously on the horizon of humanity, the writer, like an island, is an object of curiosity, of some well meaning ridicule. His wordsfor the world no longer affect the daily goings. His words are unlikely to change the world as revolutionaries or businesses or technologies do. But, what happens is more surreptitious. His words rearrange the basis of how we see ourselves. He progressively undermines the status quo. And this is perhaps why political and social systems, that have yet to cede control over our imaginations fear the written word.
Even God of the Quran knew this. Before the first command to pray, or to wash oneself, or to be generous - God orders Muhammad: iqra’a. Read (or Proclaim). The sound and, its representation, the word are what allows for us to comprehend the world. The root of the Hindu word Veda, which subsumes its most privileged texts, is vid - to know. Cognition, comprehension is what creates the world; and the word, the ability to read, and the text are merely technologies that facilitate it. The writer, then like a blacksmith or a prostitute, is simply a person who plies a trade that traffics in cognition. But unlike them, the tools he works with cleaves old worlds and creates new ones. By uttering aloud his text, by letting the syllables roil and flow out like waters, the insides of his own mind where these words are inchoately self-born is now cleansed. It is rearranged, the mental furnitures are polished and once more the cobwebs dusted away. For months and years, these words flow, unthinkingly, freely, uninhibitedly and then one day, as it happens in life, these words stop pouring forth. The reasons that pushed them out from the deep no longer seem worth it. As if one discovers that the springs have dried up and the animals who graze around no longer saunter in.
A few years ago, the great American writer Philip Roth, did just that. He announced to the world that he shall stop writing. He had written his first novel in his 20s, and now at 78 declared that he was done chiseling away at paragraphs and raising monumental novels to the skies. He was tired of being alone as his typewriter crackled away. On the the art form of the ‘novel’, he said to a French magazine: “I don’t want to read it, I don’t want to write it, and I don’t even want to talk about it anymore. I dedicated my life to the novel. I studied them, I taught them, I wrote them, and I read them. At the exclusion of nearly everything else. It’s enough!” He, like the rest of us, wanted to let life in, to watch sports, to go see museums, to put his feet up and watch TV. Or so we surmise. His creations over the years, like a far flung island’s flora and fauna, have been variations on the same theme. A few sentiments, that were of concern to him in his 20s, mutated with every iterate on publication day. By his 70s, those early flutters of youth, were now barely recognizable as that which emerges from the original imprimatur. They have calcified and lumber large like stalagmites of a literary mind. Male anxieties, lust and the scramble to belong -despite knowing very well that one is loneliest in the crowd of like minded people - were themes he has whistled past over and again.
To an outsider, to an observer, his writing life is a testament on how one must continually sharpen the rough edges of youthful and exuberant prose into a flinty weapon that slashes thickets of excess. Roth said he wants to experience all that he had foregone on count of his monumental and exclusive dedication to his craft. All solitudinal pursuits, particularly writing, relies on a sliver of misanthropy in one’s being. To give up on that is to be like an island with its levees broken; to let the tedious, terrifying and tendentious waters of life sweep in, change routine, force new habits and, perhaps even, imperil one’s inner equilibrium. To give up on that luminous inspiration that forces you to wake up in the morning, scamper to ones desk is hard work. To abandon the “fanatical habit of writing everyday”, as Roth described his routine, is to learn to quit the narcotic joys of rhythm and predictability. His monkish dedication to his craft and the granite will to subsume all else in his life, personal life included, in service of his principal passion had made him an island unto his own.
Every three years, he would publish another slender or colossal novel, that within six months, would be a familiar sight in the hands of readers rushing home from work on the subway. Attractive young women with translucent skin would sit in the sun in midtown Manhattan, at lunch hour with dog-eared paperbacks of Roth’s latest novel, read about imperiled middle aged virility and the accompanying madness of love. Paroxysms that they might have seen in their fathers and brothers, lovers and husbands. The strange segues of his novels would ring true to them, even if foreign in conceit and construction. Whether it is the tale of a light-skinned black man living his life pretending to be white and is now accused of being a racist or a story about an all-American father going in search of his daughter who has begun to starve herself to live up to Jain injunctions or the alternate reality of an America under Nazi control - there is an element of surprise coiled in his prose. Foreignness is easy to portray, it is his ability to make the familiar - a father’s quest for his grown up daughter’s love - pregnant with the alien that has lured generations of readers to Roth. But this fan following came thanks to his sustained dedication and near hermetic life on the outsides of New York. It is a commitment that leads his faithful in his highest echelons of American literary life to openly lobby the Nobel Prize committee. (The last American to win it was Toni Morrison in 1993, they dutifully remind, while still being too polite to suggest that Roth is a more prolific and risk-taking author of the two.) Yet, awards and fandom are all accoutrements of literary acceptance. But, if like Philip Roth, once you open the levees willingly and let Life pour in, or like New York in recent times, if the forces of Nature push in, impudently, no island will find time to agonize or remonstrate about that which the waters bring. An end to a carefully guard idea of non-vulnerability is a given. It can be enjoyable, but it can also be miserable. Hell, after all as Sartre said, is other people. Whatever fate has thrown Roth’s ways from then on, would in of itself make for great writing material. But like all perceptive writers, he knows the power of silence in a dialogue. This is a lesson often forgotten by our activists-writers: there are times for the world to speak and for the writers to listen.