A schoolgirl in South Africa, assigned to write an essay on a poem of mine, emails me wanting to know the poem’s meaning. Young writers in Pakistan transmit Word files of their poems and stories and ask for a critical response; others — one from the Congo even as I write this — send emails requesting to find them a publisher or an agent. Former students, who were 20 when they took a course with me and are 60 now, write to say they are retiring from their job to work on a long-planned novel.
Digital communication, disregarding time and space, facilitates instant correspondence, ignores the age gap and the old formalities of conventional respect whereby ‘Dear Sir’ or ‘Dear Prof Ghose’ is casually abandoned for ‘Hi Zulfikar!’ by a 16-year-old writing to one nearly 80. Electronic media has produced a worldwide democracy in which we are all equal, like the birds in the sky who know no national boundaries on this, our planet earth. Following the example of social media addicts, whose rapidly dancing fingers on miniature keyboards delight in sharing personal information from the trivial to the profoundly solemn, let me share with you some of my answers to a selected few from the parade of invisible emailers who populate my inbox, for among them are serious enquirers who merit a considered response.
And having written that last sentence late at night in Texas when it was nearly the next midday in Pakistan, I went to sleep and switching on the computer the next morning found a new email from precisely such a serious enquirer, a Pakistani journalist, whose message, with some questions concerning my work, was transmitted just after I’d saved that sentence and put the computer to sleep — the sort of happy coincidence that makes one believe in telepathy, fate, kismet, palmistry, and E=mc². Well, to proceed with what I was going to say, and I’m sorry if some of what I’m going to say is a repetition, but that’s how it is in the solar system, round and round we go in parabolic loops like acrobats at the Cirque du Soleil.
Exactly 50 years ago this autumn, I began teaching English at a secondary school in London and was assigned to be the form master of the first-year class — about thirty 11-year-old boys — and remained their master for six years till they were in the sixth form, after which I left to teach at the University of Texas. Now that they are all in their 60s, they are in constant contact via electronic media: press ‘Send’ and the whole class receives the same message. Several of them remember me as the teacher who inspired in them a love of literature, but recently one of them put an interesting question:
“I have no idea now whether my love of English, of the combination of words into sentences that, merely by their structure and rhythm, could move me so much, was a result of those classes and our teacher’s attitude and enthusiasm, or whether it was, perchance, merely innate?”
To that, I sent this observation: “My answer is that yes, it is innate; your brain was already inclined to respond to what you call the structure and rhythm of certain literary usages of language; all that the teacher did was to create a context in which your brain received a stimulus to activate that response. The teacher’s knowledge and literary interest at that point in his life, and perhaps his style, could all have contributed to serving as a catalyst that opened your brain to what seemed a new excitement, but had you been born with a brain which was happier with numbers than with words then you would have been indifferent to, and bored by, what the teacher was saying.
“The French have a word for the excitement the brain experiences when it is stimulated by intellectual pleasure: jouissance. Nabokov used to call it ‘aesthetic vibrancy’. I call it ‘ecstasy’, a sudden explosive thrill within one’s mind when, in literature, it is moved by a remarkable combination of words, like a line in a Shakespeare sonnet, where the pleasure is not caused just by the meaning of the words but by the mind experiencing a transcendental illumination. Similar ecstasy is experienced in the presence of exceptional visual art or when we hear music. Even scientists feel a special ecstatic thrill when a new idea is expressed as a mathematical equation that seems to occur as a beautiful revelation. And incidentally, the word ‘ecstasy’ once meant ‘madness’; so, we are madly overcome by a daft sort of happiness when beauty fills our vision.”
In 1968, the last year when I was their teacher, I began writing a novel titled Crump’s Terms, which was set in a London school. When it was published, the old boys, believing that novelists took real events and people and simply converted them into their plot and characters, searched its pages to see if any of them were represented in it. They were not since I don’t work that way, being more concerned with shaping a style that transforms ordinary reality into one of the imagination, which is purely an aesthetic impulse. On being questioned about the novel, I’ve sent them the following messages, which readers other than the former students might find illuminating.
How the name got chosen: “My character Crump was originally named Hanna, and when my editor at Macmillan first read the typescript he pointed out that Hanna sounded like Hannah, which was the name of the wife of a poet friend we had in common and from whom the poet had recently separated, and therefore to have a novel titled Hanna’s Terms would cause unnecessary embarrassment. Thereupon, being a cricket reporter in those days, I looked up the scorecard of a game I’d just reported and picked Crump, mainly because his contribution to the game was forgettable.”
Some students, bewildered by my novel’s formal deviance from a straightforward narrative, asked for guidance, and received this little lecture in reply: “All we know is that we have a consciousness and that the world around us invades this consciousness with an endless stream of images via our five senses; we try to interpret this content by projecting images in the form of painting, sculpture, poems, stories, songs, music, all of which involve the creation of signs and symbols, and each accomplished work becomes the version of one artist’s understanding of reality. The scientist does the same thing as the artist: looks at those images, interprets them as the laws of physics, etc. Then there are religious people who simply avoid all of this, take what’s known as a blind leap of faith and unquestioningly accept the signs and symbols given them by their religion. All our understanding, then, is no more than a set of signs and symbols of one particular origin that our brain finds acceptable and therefore holds on to as possibly explaining the nature of reality, knowing full well, of course, that all conclusions are provisional and are under constant revision, qualification, enlargement, or reduction — otherwise we would have arrived at some ultimate truth long ago. In the end, all we have is a form of language and what we understand is never reality but the words and the grammar of that language.