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Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Man from Porlock and the Pillow Book

[written 25 January, not today.]
The thoughts of mine I find most interesting to me are the ones that come when I wake at about 5 am. They flow freely and I sometimes wish there were a kind of running tape of them word for word that I could record and play back later.
   Have a pen and notebook handy, you say. The very act of writing anything down interferes with the whole process and it’s lost. You may be able to jump up, get the pen and notebook, and start writing away. I can’t. I have to struggle firstly to pull myself up to a sitting position with one hand, turn and pick up pen and paper, one handed, have no means of placing the paper with a useless hand while I try to write with the other. Then I’ll probably want to go to the bathroom, which is another full ritual I could go into in intimate detail but you don’t want or need to know. And don’t talk about some sort of voice recording device. Just as useless in the circumstances, and for the same reason.
   Either way, the man from Porlock has knocked and Coleridge has lost his poem. Kublai Khan’s pleasure dome collapses in a heap. All that’s left is a jumble of words and ideas rapidly departing, like a storm with its lightning flashes now way out on the ocean, never to return.
   No, that doesn’t work. Besides, when I wake is a perfect time to do some preliminary physical exercises, just lying there on the bed. These are just ones to stir my body a little and give it the flexibility to provide me with the balance necessary to walk safely. I also do some symmetrical work with my arms – well, as symmetrical as it can be with one arm behaving like a broken wing.
   These can’t last too long – about 15 minutes. I know this is the low point between medications, and if a seizure is going to happen, it will do so after a little exercise and before taking the anti-seizure pills. But in a way I also want to dare a seizure to strike when my resistance is lowest, because if I don’t have any rumblings or warnings, I feel like I am insured for the day, as it were. Nonsense, I know, but it works for me, so butt out.
   So, I do the exercises and go to the bathroom. I look in the mirror. It's not a pretty sight. 
   Each day my hair grows back a millimetre or so, and it makes a slight difference. To me it does, anyway. The chemotherapy I had didn’t do that much damage really, in the longer term – what was attacked over the year has recovered, only thinner and wispier and almost grey. 
   The places that really came under fire were specific areas on my scalp, and therefore the hair follicles blasted by the radiotherapy, not chemo. That’s where the hair is really struggling in its attempt to renew itself, and not making much headway. Hairway, let’s say. Ha ha.
   As my sister Kay observed when she had radiotherapy on the tumour behind her eye, what was fascinating was that you lost hair where the x-rays blasted their way OUT on the other side of your head and not just on the way IN. How fantastic is the human brain to put up with that and still let you behave reasonably normally? I was given the maximum dosage possible for a human to take with any measure of safety. So don’t blame me if I can’t remember what day it is, or what we had for dinner last night.            
   It feels to me like there’s some sort of reverse Samson effect going on. Samson as you know lost his strength when he let Delilah arrange for him to have a serious trim. I feel like the more hair I have, the weaker I get.
   It’s a funny old story, that one – Samson I mean. I wonder if the same people who make fun of the Aboriginal Dreamtime stories, or the oriental creation stories, are the same ones who regard this tale as gospel truth.
   At least I don’t go round killing Philistines. I rather like being one, anyway. You don’t need any excuses that way.
   Each morning when I wake, the fogginess in my head mutates further and further into low-level pain. It’s like sleeping allows the tumour a better opportunity to produce and expel its waste products and let them seep into other parts of the surrounding brain tissue, and that’s where the inflammation comes from. And extra pressure of course, and all of this increases as the Avastin starts to lose its battle. Being physically active tends to clear it a little; though daily the condition takes less time to come back. Right now the relentless low-level pounding is returning.
   No, it may be news time on the radio but I’m not turning it on. I can catch up on the world’s miseries and follies a little later. That’s easy enough to do. 
   In fact, this morning I have changed my routine. After eating and taking my medications, I have begun writing, here, while some lingering echoes of the stories from earlier this morning remain. 
   Perhaps they're better for being vague. Maybe if they were in front of me word for word they wouldn't seem to be half as interesting. It's like when you somehow manage to lose an email you've been writing. The moment it's gone, it seems that much better than what it probably was. Admit it.
   What I did usually was to check email, then the news online, then the blog comments, and write answers to emails – then I might write some blog entry or fool around with some FaceBook nonsense that amuses me. But by that time, the world had compressed or shattered those pre-dawn thoughts and so interwoven them with everything else since I awoke that they were no longer mine. 
   So, I decided that I will only let the world in when I have written as much as I want to here.
   This is a radical departure for me, but it’s the only way. If I don’t, hours have passed, I'll need to sleep again, and I find myself resenting my indiscipline.
   One of the most enchanting pieces of world literature easily accessible in English translation is Sei Shonagon’s the Pillow Book. It was written a thousand years ago and remains one of the most enlightening pieces of Japanese literature for the rest of the world.
   It’s a diary, pretty much. Its attraction is that quite a lot of it is simply a series of lists, and you can access the Japanese mind through these lists.
   You could get an even deeper appreciation of the Japanese mind by reading Lady Murasaki’s the Tale of Genji, but the sad truth is that this Jane Austen-ish novel of over 1000 pages in English is just too much for most people, and like much of the world’s great literature, far many more people claim to have read it than actually have.
   It’s a bit like Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses in that respect. A friend of mine who works at the Town Library says Rushdie’s novel is the most often borrowed and most quickly returned book in the history of the Library, with the first few pages thumbed and the rest of it pristine. Pity. It’s a fantastic piece of literature, but pretty hopeless if you don’t know anything about India or Indians or Islam.
   My point in mentioning the Pillow Book is that I think I am going to adopt much more of that style; remembered snatches of things, writing it as Peter Ustinov did in the spirit of his reminiscences, to ‘Dear Me’. What a perfect title he chose for his autobiography. What a brilliant man.
   Funnily enough, the thing I remember most about Dear Me is that when he joined up to fight the Germans in the Second World War, he chose the Tank Corps. His logic was that if he were involved in any battle, he was going to do it sitting down.
   Maybe I’ll even intersperse my jumbled thoughts with some of those from Sei Shonagon, so any effort to read this stuff won’t be entirely wasted.
   Oh, one last thing for now. There's a movie by the name of the Pillow Book. It bears little if any resemblance to the diary by Sei Shonagon, so don't be fooled!


  1. Yes, it's good to get those dreams and nearly pre-conscious non-rational thoughts down before the rational world intrudes and wipes it all away. No emails before breakfast is the rule around here.

    I read half of Genji on one retreat, but unfortunately never finished it. What I remember from it are tales of court intrigues, power plays, love affairs, and general gossip about court life at that time in Japan. Oh those layers of clothing, with just the right colours protruding. And what a stroke of near fatal misfortune to be a woman with a red tip on your nose. Completely unloveable. Nothing particularly profound, but insightful for an historian. Nothing much changes.

    I can understand why the Satanic Verses do the revolving door in the library. So much publicity about something that is supposed to be so scanadlous. I must have tried 5 times to read it and put it down. I persevered, though, and on the 6th attempt I could not put it down. I realised you have to be in an almost pre-conscious dream-like state of mind to be taken up by the stream of consciousness, nearly mystical discourse of the book. Now, unfortunately, when I try to read it again, I cannot enter that magical state of mind. Aisha and the blue butterflies forever ellude me.

  2. I think if you read half of Genji then that's kinda 95% anyway, as the Law of Diminishing Returns can set in, depending on why you were reading it in the first place. You did well! For an historian trying to understand the courtly life of the Heian period, gold. Trying to understand what was going on in a Japanese peasant's head... not very instructive!
    Very interested that you cracked the code of the Satanic Verses on a 6th attempt- and impressed with your persistence. I understand your failure to recreate the mindset [for want of a better word]. When I first read _A Passage to India_ I rushed it because I wanted to flash through the story line, and it ended up failing to satisfy me. So, many years later, I read it again, this time at the leisurely pace it needed - the pace of India at the time - and I appreciated it fully. I'm not so sure I would again, though. Things have their time and pace. The film caught it nicely.
    Don't worry about the butterflies.


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