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Dialogue in a virtual world

Updated October 07, 2013
Zulfikar Ghose is a poet, novelist and literary critic. Apart from criticism and poetry, he has also written many novels, including the trilogy The Incredible Brazilian. He is Professor Emeritus in the English Department at the University of Texas at Austin.
Zulfikar Ghose is a poet, novelist and literary critic. Apart from criticism and poetry, he has also written many novels, including the trilogy The Incredible Brazilian. He is Professor Emeritus in the English Department at the University of Texas at Austin.

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.

“Well, this is getting too serious; so, here’s a true anecdote from over 50 years ago (courtesy of a letter in The Times from Valerie Eliot): one morning, T. S. Eliot, who lived in Cheyne Walk (Chelsea, London), hailed a taxi to go to work. The taxi driver recognised the famous poet and when Eliot confirmed his identity, the driver said to him, ‘I get lots of famous people. Picked up Bertrand Russell the other day. And I said to him, “Ere, Lord Russell, what’s it all about, then?” And you know what? He didn’t have an answer.’

“No philosopher has an answer but a quest for an answer makes the humblest of us a philosopher. All of this to say that my novel, Crump’s Terms, has this sort of thinking behind it. The history of the modern English novel begins with novels like Pamela by Richardson and Robinson Crusoe by Defoe, both of which are what’s known as mainstream novels, and then there was Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, which is an ‘experimental’ novel in that it doesn’t have a linear story. My novel follows the latter approach. There is some story being presented, with a succession of unconnected events, but the writer keeps breaking off the sort of narrative continuity found in mainstream novels in order to direct the reader’s mind to absorb the philosophical implications of the form’s narrative subversion. Well, I better stop, this is getting too bloody serious! And perhaps pretentious. The fact is that one does not think of these ideas when writing and the reader does not think of them when reading. But if the writer and the reader are well-read, then these ideas will direct the writer’s concentration and the reader’s understanding at a deep unconscious level, and often it is this unstated and invisible factor, which is present only as an instinct, that makes for a work of original power.”

Sometimes I receive questions from graduate students working on a thesis associated with my work. To one who asked what I was attempting as regards language and narrative in my novel The Triple Mirror of the Self, I wrote: “I never work with a preconceived plan but merely pursue images and am sometimes, perhaps often, surprised where they take me. Of course, there’s a lot of literary and philosophical reading behind a novel of any complexity, and that works best when it’s naturally secreted subconsciously where the brain quietly selects from the mass accumulated in its cells. In spite of one’s belief in free will one has to admit that there’s a silent determinism that makes us do that which we had not thought of doing but feel almost superstitiously compelled to do.”

Another asked me a question related to my native tongue and my adopted language, and I answered: “Actually, I can speak a bit of Punjabi or Urdu or Hindustani, though it takes a couple of weeks of being surrounded by native speakers before some of the words begin to return and my first attempts to return to those languages usually make me look like a dumb idiot. But the shaping of language in my writing has more to do with my approach to writing than to any sociological consideration. Perhaps being a foreigner to the language one writes in makes one that much more alert to its nuances and therefore — as happened with Conrad and Nabokov and to Beckett when he wrote in French — one ends up writing a denser prose than would a native who, taking the equivalence between language and ideas for granted, is not compelled to seek a sharper expression.

“As for ‘multiculturalism,’ this is hardly a new phenomenon: where would Chaucer be without the Italians, where Dryden without the classical French theatre, where all modern novelists without Cervantes…etc.? Indeed, there are very few writers of any consequence who have not raided other cultures without which they would not be what they are. T. S. Eliot could not exist without the French symbolists, the Brazilian Machado de Assis would be another writer without the English Laurence Sterne, Borges has paid tribute to Kafka, Marquez to Faulkner. There are dozens of similar examples in the other arts. It is only the mediocrities who believe that a narrow nationalism is to be worn like a chastity belt to guarantee some spurious purity.”

Because I had said that I did not have a reader in mind when writing, a student working on his dissertation in Tunisia asked, “Why all this indifference to the reader?”, and I answered: “It is not a pose, merely a fact of life that one writes because one is curious to see what can be done with language when it is created in a special way, to see in the end the form that emerges and hope to be astonished or at least pleased with what thus gets said. Of course, one is pleased that another human being eventually reads the work but this is only a question of common vanity and is not the reason why one writes. To profess an exclusive sort of concentration on the concept one is engaged in is not to affect an indifference to the reader.”

A young writer in Pakistan wrote to say she was reading Maria Luisa Bombal and Bruno Schulz after seeing me mention them in an article and, telling me something about her own work, asked if she should postpone her writing to concentrate on the reading. I answered: “This might be a repetition of what I’ve said before, but: no, don’t quit writing in order to do the reading. There’s nothing like regular work; it’s difficult to maintain a disciplined schedule but you should try to do so; it’s like taking exercise to keep the body fit. “There’s always the temptation to take a day off, there’s always an excuse readily available to prevaricate, and there are always friends and family wanting to go out and have fun. But as far as it is physically possible, your regular schedule of reading and writing should always come first.

“When reading, always have the question at the back of your mind, How is the writer doing this? How is the prose, or the verse, functioning? Which is to say, you should be aware of the form the writer is creating and the style in which the text is being projected and advanced. And it’s most important to read widely, in the widest possible range of forms because, as I’ve no doubt said already, that’s how your mind works out for itself the form that suits it best.… I’m glad that you’ve found Nabokov’s lectures — he will teach you more than any instructor of creative writing.”

I quote all that with the hope that other young writers in Pakistan might find in these responses the direction and the encouragement they might be seeking. With them, I would like to share the concluding remarks that I wrote to her: “Finally, there is the important matter of ambition. You should be driven by the ambition to produce a work of lasting quality, to be worthy of the great art that we have inherited. Anyone can produce a book, and tens of thousands do that, some of who are successful and world-famous for a day, and then they’re gone to be replaced by others, good luck to them. The praise of one’s contemporaries is inconsequential, the only praise worth receiving is the knowledge that Chekhov or Woolf or Proust would have been pleased with one of one’s sentences. So, be inspired!” And what about the schoolgirl from South Africa? Well, her’s was a smart move to get me to do her homework for her. Perhaps I should have answered her, saying that she could easily discover the meaning of my poem if she copied it down 20 times, word for word.