Ricardo Blanco's Blog

The art of loneliness

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‘Summer Interior’ by Edward Hopper, one of the artists discussed by Olivia Laing in The Lonely City.

 

The Lonely City is an exquisite meditation on loneliness, but it is also so much more. Laing explores the lives of a handful on American artists who knew loneliness well, and whose work often references that state, either outright, or through suggestion.

The final chapter is wonderful (much of it is wonderful, if truth be told, but I spent a long time on it, and there was a hiatus in the middle when I left it alone for quite a while.) The book offers extensive and marvellously sharp portraits of Hopper, Warhol, David Wojnarowicz (‘generally pronounced Wonna-row-vich’), and the sad and reclusive Henry Darger, resident of Chicago and painter of nude little girls with penises – a truly astonishing account; the singer/performer Klaus Nomi; a summary of the 1980s AIDS epidemic; reflections on her own (Laing’s) loneliness, especially of digital obsessing in her neon-lit room on Times Square, in a building which doubles as a hostel for the homeless and displaced, endlessly scrolling through Twitter:

‘What did I want? What was I looking for? What was I doing there, hour after hour? Contradictory things. I wanted to know what was going on. I wanted to be stimulated. I wanted to be in contact and I wanted to retain my privacy, my private space. I wanted to click and click and click until my synapses exploded, until I was flooded by superfluity. I wanted to hypnotise myself with data, with coloured pixels, to become vacant, to overwhelm any creeping sense of who I actually was, to annihilate my feelings. At the same time I wanted to wake up, to be politically and socially engaged. And then again I wanted to declare my presence, to list my interests and objections, to notify the world that I was still there, thinking with my fingers, even if I’d almost lost the art of speech. I wanted to look and I wanted to be seen, and somehow it was easier to do both via the mediating screen.’

The latter sections on the AIDS epidemic and on Warhol’s friendship with Jean-Michel Basquiat are especially moving. She cites extracts from Warhol’s diary and goes to Pittsburgh to the Warhol museum, and she visits Strange Fruit, an installation by Zoe Leonard at Philadelphia Museum of Art in celebration of David Wojnarowicz.

She praises the ability of Art to help heal lives, while conceding that there are many things that art cannot do. ‘It can’t bring the dead back to life, it can’t mend arguments between friends, or cure AIDS, or halt the pace of climate change . . . It does have a capacity to create intimacy; it does have a way of healing wounds, and better yet of making it apparent that not all wounds need healing and not all scars are ugly.’

Finally, on loneliness itself: ‘I don’t believe the cure for loneliness is meeting someone, not necessarily. I think it’s about two things: learning how to befriend yourself and understanding that many of the things that seem to afflict us as individuals are in fact the result of larger forces of stigma and exclusion, which can and should be resisted.’

We are in this together, she reminds us: ‘What matters is kindness; what matters is solidarity. What matters is staying alert, staying open, because if we know anything from what has gone before us, it is that the time for feeling will not last.’

Midwinter with Herodotus

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Ryzsard Kapuściński was a Polish writer who spent most of his working life as a roving foreign correspondent for the Polish state news agency (PAP) during the Communist era, but his own writings, in the form of personal journals, mix reportage with a more allegorical and subversive style, resulting in a powerfully idiosyncratic perspective. For long periods he lived in India, China, Latin America and, especially, Africa. He remains a controversial character, as much for his personal life as an adventurer and spy – as an article in the Financial Times explains – as for his abundant literary talents.

I have just finished his wonderful book, Travels with Herodotus, in which Kapuściński summarises a lifetime of travel with Herodotus as his literary companion, employing the Greek historian as both a template and a torch, from which to cast light on the events that he, Kapuściński, is witnessing in the turbulence of the twentieth century. This book has been on my ‘to read’ list for quite a while now, and the long winter evenings have given me time to fully savour it. I read slowly (unfortunately, I know no other way) and scribble in pencil on the pages, and sometimes stop to write something down, usually a digression based on whatever has been jolted into life by a story or idea in the text.

While reading Kapuściński’s book, there were many such pauses.

Consider, for instance, this reflection on the nature of the journey, and I don’t mean the jerr-nee – that all-purpose metaphor that has been foisted on us by wellbeing gurus and life coaches – but the fact of travelling from one place to another:

‘A journey, after all, neither begins in the instant we set out, nor ends when we have reached our doorstep once again. It starts much earlier and is never really over, because the film of memory continues running on inside us long after we have come to a physical standstill. Indeed, there exists something like a contagion of travel, and the disease is essentially incurable.’

The idea of travel as a continuum, as a coherent yet fragmented idea, is one that resonates powerfully with me. The analogy with film is also apposite; we are constantly running over the same movies of our lives, with the effect – or at least this seems to be the case with me – that these are episodes from a life lived by several different selves. It is an idea that I find strangely comforting, and fits in with my understanding of the ‘episodic’ versus the ‘narrative’ as described by Galen Strawson in his essay ‘Against Narrativity.’

At one point in the book, Kapuściński is stuck in the Congo during some long, drawn-out war, unable to leave, and in a dangerous place. He finds refuge with a Dr Ranke, who runs a small hospital. He is obsessed, as was Herodotus, by the way that people define themselves according to the differences they perceive to exist between themselves (or their ‘group’) and others. ‘I know my nearest neighbours, and that is all; they know theirs; and those know others still. In this way we will arrive at the ends of the earth. And who is to gather up all these bits and arrange them? No one. They cannot be arranged.’

And he goes on, wandering around the hospital, where the patients, displaced by the war, having walked about the country for weeks without food, are allocated rooms according to tribal affiliation:

‘Discreetly, I try to infer the differences. I walk around the little hospital, look into the rooms – not a difficult thing to do, because in this hot and humid climate everything is wide open. But the people all seem alike, invariably poor and listless, and only if one listens carefully does one notice that they speak different languages. If one smiles at them, they will respond in kind, but a smile such as theirs will take a long time forming and will remain upon the face for only a moment.’

He ends the book with a reflection on temporal provincialism, a concept I had never given much thought to, at least not in the way that Kapuściński describes it:

‘There were times when journeys into the past appealed to me more than my present-day journeys as correspondent and reporter. I felt this way especially in moments of fatigue with the present. Everything in the present kept repeating itself: politics – always perfidious, unclean games and lies; the life of ordinary man – unrelenting poverty and hopelessness; the division of the world into East and west – eternal duality.’

His conclusion on this other type of provincialism:

‘So there are spatial and temporal provincials. Every globe, every map of the world shows the former how lost and blind they are in their provincialism; similarly, every history – including every page of Herodotus – demonstrates to the latter that the present existed always, that history is merely an uninterrupted progression of presents, that what for us are ancient events were for those who lived them immediate and present reality.’

I particularly like the expression of that last sentiment; that history is merely an uninterrupted progression of present moments; there is really no such things as time: we live in a present that is on a continuum with other presents; there is no beginning and no end, just as there are no dividing lines or cut-off points in the perpetual flow of the present. The past and the future co-exist within the continuum of the present.

This reminds me of Einstein’s letter to the family of his friend Michele Besso, shortly after Besso’s death. He writes: ‘Now he [Michele] has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That means nothing . . . People like us who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.’

The connection between Kapuściński’s reflections on temporal provincialism and Einstein’s ideas about the physics of time might not be obvious, but it seems fitting that two individuals who between them witnessed much of the devastation of the 20th century should arrive at similar conclusions, if through very different means.

 

 

Tlön, Uqbar, and the girl in the moon

 

 

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Having fallen ill on the last day of teaching, the accumulated tensions of the  semester finally erupting in an onslaught of snot, fever, and a hideous, raucous cough, I take to my bed in the hope that rest and warmth, accompanied by mugs of hot lemon and honey, will heal me. Given the horizontal advantage, after drifting in and out of sleep over the course of Saturday afternoon, cold rain pelting at the window, my thoughts drift, if not into unconsciousness, at least toward the unconscious.

Aware as I am of the various scribblings of Freud and Jung on this subject, and dawdling on YouTube, the opportunity arises to watch Jordan Peterson give a class on psychoanalytic theory. Curious to learn what the much-maligned Peterson has to say on this topic (delivered by way of a somewhat cursory psychoanalytic reading on the film Mulholland Drive) I find that – according to Peterson – Freud saw the unconscious as the place of hidden or ‘disguised secrets’, while Jung regarded it as the place of ‘knowledge that had not yet come to be’.

Leaving aside whether or not Peterson is correct in his framing of this difference, the notion that there is another version of knowledge that has ‘not yet come to be’ is intriguing, and certainly corresponds with my understanding of Jung, and of his followers Joseph Campbell and Marie-Louise von Franz, to name but two. But how are we to balance the world of everyday, conscious, ego-driven perception, with the restless, seething mass of subterranean ‘knowledge’ provided by the unconscious?

Having posed this question, I am pleased to come across two indications of how this might be translated into a clearer understanding. The first arrived later in the day when, still idling through YouTube, I find an account given by Marie-Louise von Franz about her first encounter with Jung, when she was eighteen years old and the Swiss psychoanalyst was fifty-eight, an age, the young von Franz thinks, which makes him ‘ready for the cemetery.’ Nevertheless, von Franz is enthralled, and she continues:

‘He [Jung] told that story which you can read in the Memories (Jung’s autobiography, Memories, Dreams, Reflections) about this girl who was on the moon and had to fight a demon, and the black demon got her. And he pretended, or he told it in a way as if she really had been on the moon and it had happened.

And I was very rationalistically trained from school so I said indignantly, “But she imagined to be on the moon, or she dreamt it, but she wasn’t on the moon.”

And he looked at me earnestly and said, “Yes she was on the moon.”

I still remember looking over the lake there and thinking, “Either this man is crazy, or I am too stupid to understand what he means.”

And then suddenly it dawned on me, “He means that what happens psychically is the real reality, and this other moon, this stony desert which goes round the earth, that’s illusion, or that’s only pseudo-reality.”

And that hit me tremendously deeply. When I crawled, rather drunk into bed because he gave us a lot of Burgundy that evening, I thought, “It will take you ten years to digest what you experienced today.”’

In terms of our understanding of the unconscious, this story’s insistence that psychic reality is no less real than the reality of the everyday is, to say the least, instructive.

It is worth bearing in mind, at this point, that the unconscious, according to Jung, has no sense of its own or its bearer’s mortality, and is not constricted by any kind of temporality. The past, the present and the future are equally at its disposal.

41NCKYW7Z2L._SX299_BO1,204,203,200_Now, this morning, not entirely at random, I find myself re-reading Borges’ story ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’, in the translation by Alastair Reid, where Borges describes a fictitious country (Uqbar) whose mythology originates in a mysterious world called Tlön.

I come to stop at a passage describing one of the ‘oldest regions of Tlön’ in which ‘it is not an uncommon occurrence for lost objects to be duplicated. Two people are looking for a pencil; the first one finds it and says nothing; the second finds a second pencil, no less real, but more in keeping with his expectation. These secondary objects are called hrönir and, even though awkward in form, are a little larger than the originals.’

Putting it simply – and in terms that Borges himself might well have avoided – Tlön is the unconscious of Uqbar; the realm of myth and dream. And for the sake of the story I’d say that within the unconscious, the search for the pencil results in two discoveries: in one of these the pencil is the ‘authentic’ pencil that the protagonist lost, and in the other version, the pencil is a simulacrum (or hrön), a possible version of itself.

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Would it be too much to map that idea from von Franz, of the ‘reality’ of unconscious experience onto this discovery of the ‘real’ pencil; with the second, somewhat clumsier, more ‘awkward’ and ‘larger’ (as in ‘larger than life’) second pencil corresponding to the ‘real life’ acting out of the story of the girl and the demon? By which I mean, of the two pencils, the ‘original’ is the one that appears to the psyche; the second, to the world? And if there is a second pencil, no doubt there exists a third; in other words multiple hrönrir representing the infinite versions of oneself and one’s actions in the multiverse (see Blanco’s last blog but one).

Or has my head cold taken this beyond the grasp of the intellect alone?

There is more, of course (there always is . . .)

In a manner that is never clearly elaborated, the artefacts and objects of Tlön have infiltrated our own world. In other words: ‘Contact with Tlön and the ways of Tlön have disintegrated this world.’ Things do not unfold well in Borges’ story.

Although first published in 1940, the postscript to Borges’ story is dated 1947. In other words he places the postscript to his story seven years after its publication, by which time World War Two has ended, and a New World Order is taking shape. This information (unknowable to Borges at the time of his writing) lends particular valence to the following paragraph:

‘Ten years ago, any symmetrical system whatsoever which gave the appearance of order – dialectical materialism, anti-Semitism, Nazism – was enough to fascinate men. Why not fall under the spell of Tlön and submit to the minute and vast evidence of an ordered planet? Unless to reply that reality, too, is ordered. It may be so, but in accordance with divine laws – I translate: inhuman laws – which we will never completely perceive. Tlön may be a labyrinth, but it is a labyrinth plotted by men, a labyrinth destined to be deciphered by men.’

I check out critical responses to the Borges story, and then recall, among the many commentaries, Peter Gyngell’s unpublished PhD thesis, The Enigmas of Borges, and the Enigma of Borges (2012). Gyngell considers ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’ to be, to some extent, a reflection on ‘the scepticism and despair for Argentina’s future that Borges shared with his contemporaries in the late 1930’s; and, above all, a reflection of his fears at that time of the domination of Argentina by the new and growing imperial power of the USA.’ In Gyngell’s reading, the takeover by Tlön represents the commercial and cultural influence of the USA permeating the world.

‘I would also submit’, writes Gyngell, ‘that Tlön is not a complete success. The reader is presented not only with two totally incompatible themes — heavy philosophical satire and economic politics — but also with a story that is overwritten, at least by Borges’ standards. ‘Tlön’ is the longest story in the Collected Fictions; and I suggest that this is brought about, at least in part, by Borges’ vain attempt to reconcile its irreconcilable themes.’

I personally still retain a fondness for the story – which was the first by Borges that I ever read – particularly for the following paragraph, with which I will end this post, and which I remember citing in my first essay as an anthropology undergraduate many years ago; apropos of what precisely, I simply cannot remember:

‘Things duplicate themselves in Tlön. They tend at the same time to efface themselves, to lose their detail when people forget them. The classic example is that of a stone threshold which lasted as long as it was visited by a beggar, and which faded from sight on his death. Occasionally, a few birds, a horse perhaps, have saved the ruins of an amphitheatre.’

 

 

Ongoingness: Manguso, Didion, Woolf

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The question of whether or not to keep a diary, or journal, is one that has perplexed me, on and off, for much of my adult life. If you do decide to keep a record of the everyday, what form should it take? What should go into it? Crucially, what kind of artefact should it be: an expensive leather-bound Italian volume, or a cheap supermarket note pad? Too often, whatever its design, it dissolves into a series of injunctions; things to do, places to go, suggestions of ways to become a better person, and shopping lists.

When teaching, on the other hand, I readily recommend students to read Joan Didion’s brilliant essay ‘On Keeping a Notebook’ – but then a notebook is not quite the same thing as a diary, is it? And Didion is quite clear on the way she uses her own notebook:

‘. . . [T]he point of my keeping a notebook has never been, nor is it now, to have an accurate factual record of what I have been doing or thinking. That would be a different impulse entirely, an instinct for reality which I sometimes envy but do not possess. At no point have I ever been able successfully to keep a diary; my approach to daily life ranges from the grossly negligent to the merely absent, and on those few occasions when I have tried dutifully to record a day’s events, boredom has so overcome me that the results are mysterious at best. What is this business about “shopping, typing piece, dinner with E, depressed”? Shopping for what? Typing what piece? Who is E? Was this “E” depressed, or was I depressed? Who cares?’

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Sarah Manguso (Photo: Joel Brouwer)

Sarah Manguso is a writer I have been pressing on anyone who will listen since discovering her in the summer, while on a residency in Canada. The writing defies easy categorisation, and is marked by a graceful minimalism. I have just finished Ongoingness, a reflection on the past, and on the diary that she no longer feels the need to maintain with the same obsessive zeal with which she began it as a teenager (and sustained for twenty-five years). With wit and admirable brevity, she succeeds in saying more in a few pages than many writers manage in a lifetime.

One of the many interesting reflections to emerges from Manguso’s book is that quality of forgetfulness that allows us to continue in the rut of accustomed thought, even when our circumstances have changed. One may even be inclined, on occasion, to forget as momentous a change as having had a baby. She writes:

‘Since the baby was born I still occasionally wonder whether I should have a baby, whether I should get married, whether I should move to this or that city I’ve already moved to, already left. All the large questions still float about me, and in its sleep- deprived dampened awareness of the present moment, my memory treats these past moments as if they’re all still happening.’

How that resonates! How often the momentous events of one’s life seem to be happening to someone else, to a distinct other or avatar, while our more familiar self goes about its business, oblivious.  Not only births, but deaths, can be dissolved in everyday forgetfulness. There are times, for example, when I think to myself that I must call my father, to tell him about something that has just happened, some small detail that will interest him – only to remember that he is no longer with us, that he died three and a half years ago.

‘I’ve never understood so clearly that linear time is a summary of actual time, of All Time, of the forever that has always been happening.’

And on the following page, this – which has happened to me also:

‘In class my students repeated what they claimed I’d said during the previous class, and, not remembering the words as my own, I found myself approving of them vaguely.’

While this latter example might be put down to simple forgetfulness, I find it hard to conceive of myself as such an inherently forgetful person, when I can, on certain occasions, remember events in their minutest detail. It is almost as alarming as when my iPhone tells me ‘You have a new memory’: only to be presented with a series of photographs taken in 2016 in a place called ‘Great Britain.’

Returning to Manguso’s book, her ‘Afterword’ considers whether or not she should have included excerpts from her quarter century of diaries in the text of Ongoingness. She decided against it, she writes, because ‘the only way to represent the diary in this book would be either to include the entire thing untouched – which would have required an additional eight thousand pages – or to include none of it. . . The only way I could include my diary in this book then, was to refer to it and then continue on.’

And this memorable line from her interview with The White Review: ‘Writing has always felt good to me. It provides an escape hatch for the internal mess.’

She also says in that interview, in answer to the question: ‘Was the process of writing Ongoingness a necessary distinction between yourself now, and the self you were recording in the diary?’ with: ‘I wrote Ongoingness to record the particular experience of losing a continuous anxiety of long duration. When I was done with it, the worry had dissipated. So, yes, there is a before and an after, but it’s the same as with all my books.’

Manguso also says that ‘Ongoingness is a book about learning to inhabit time instead of just ceaselessly documenting it’ – which might suggest that having a child presents one with the reality of someone else depending utterly on one, that one has to be constantly present and correct rather than on the periphery, recording stuff. Personally, becoming a parent made me conscious of my presence in the world more forcefully than anything else I’ve experienced.

Keeping a diary should be a gentle, rather than obsessive, pursuit. You need to record and observe with a quiet detachment rather than an obsessive appropriation. You are never going to record everything of import, as Sarah discovers in her own book: ‘I began to understand that keeping a diary was, as we say, neither necessary nor sufficient.’ She ends the interview, appropriately enough, with a quotation from Virginia Woolf’s ‘Sketch of the Past’:

‘These then are some of my first memories. But of course as an account of my life they are misleading, because the things one does not remember are as important; perhaps they are more important.’

 

 

Borges and the Multiverse

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There are few ideas more mind-blowing than that of the multiverse, and the notion that the universe is perpetually dividing into parallel universes, each of them containing versions of ourselves.

Long before I’d ever heard of the multiverse, or parallel universes, I was pretty much obsessed by the notion that every decision I took led to an outcome, or rather, a series of outcomes, which, had I chosen differently, would have led to different life circumstances – not just for me, but for others around me. To use a footballing analogy, one of the things that used to bother me was when a sports commentator would say ‘if he hadn’t missed that goal in the first half, the score would now be 2-1’ No!! If he hadn’t missed that goal something else would have happened, and then something else – every moment of the game would have unfolded in a totally different way from the way it did by the missing of the goal; just as in life, if I had stayed behind one night in 1984 for another drink, or had worn another shirt, or had stepped into the road, or had decided to take the bus rather than the tube, the course of my life would probably have been different. True, the outcomes might often be trivial, but they might also, on the other hand, be life-altering. The term ‘sliding-door’ moment has become shorthand for this line of thinking.

I remember a story about a small boy I knew, let’s call him Francesco, who, as a five-year-old asked his grandmother: ‘where will little Francesco be when I am a grown up?’ The question is staggering in its perspicacity. It is as if the child had intuited the possibility of multiple selves emerging at every step of the way on his journey towards adulthood; which in turn suggests a precocious anticipation of the multiverse.

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Hugh Everett, a Princeton PhD student, published a thesis in 1947 that introduced the concept of the multiverse. In it, he claimed that we are living in a multiverse of countless universes, in which exist countless copies of ourselves. Each decision in the course of a life precipitates the splitting of the universe, which then continues to split, infinitely, with each decision that follows.

At the time, Everett’s theory was rejected by the then reigning authority in quantum mechanics, Niels Bohr, and Everett, disgusted by academia, gave up theoretical physics and went to work for the Pentagon as a probability analyst. However, among a small group of followers his theory lived on, took on momentum, and is now seriously regarded by many of today’s leading quantum physicists as foundational. According to one of these physicists, Max Tegmark of MIT, Everett’s discovery of the multiverse is ‘as important as Einstein’s work on relativity.’

The idea that at each and every turn the cosmos divides into parallel universes in which every conceivable outcome of every event happens somewhere is both appealing and terrifying. On the one hand, there is some comfort, to me at least, in knowing that all the bad decisions I ever took have – in some distant world – been counteracted by better ones. On the other hand, there is the moral dilemma of whether or not one is causing suffering in other universes by making certain choices which will, by definition, have negative ramifications elsewhere in the multiverse, with potentially disastrous consequences. After some deep thought, I came to the realisation that – as Rowan Hooper put it in a New Scientist article on the theme: ‘the best way to live in the multiverse is to think carefully about how you live your life in this one.’

Writers who have been inspired by the multiverse since the 1960s include Philip K. Dick, Diana Wynne Jones, Stephen King, Phillip Pullman and Neil Garman. However, all of these writers made use of the trope of the multiverse, or parallel universes after Hugh Everett’s discovery. Not so J.L. Borges, as I was alerted a few weeks ago by an article in the Spanish newspaper El País.

Readers may remember Borges’ story, ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’ (El jardín de los senderos que se bifurcan), which is the account given by one Yu Tsun, a German spy working in England during World War One. Dr Tsun, who is Chinese, is being pursued by a British agent named Richard Madden, who is Irish, a detail that already suggests divided loyalties. Dr Tsun has information of great importance to the German war effort, but with Madden closing in on him, is unable to pass this on to his masters in Berlin. He goes, inexplicably, it seems, to the house of Dr Stephen Albert, a renowned Sinologist with a special research interest in Ts’ui Pên, Tsun’s grandfather, a respected sage, who retired as Governor of Yunnan Province in order to write a vast novel and ‘to create a maze in which all men would lose themselves. He spent thirteen years on these oddly assorted tasks before he was assassinated by a stranger. His novel had no sense to it and nobody ever found his labyrinth.’ It turns out, this being Borges, that the book and the labyrinth are one and the same thing, and the title of this infinite and ‘chaotic novel’ is of course, The Garden of Forking Paths.

Albert tells Yu Tsun that Ts’ui Pên’s novel is modelled on a maze in the sense that it constantly bifurcates ‘in time, but not in space.’ ‘In all fiction’, he explains, ‘when a man is faced with alternatives he chooses one at the expense of the others.’ However, in this novel, whenever a course of action has to be decided upon, rather than choosing one and pursuing its linear development, each course taken divides in two, with each of these being the point of departure for other, further, bifurcations, and so on.

‘Your ancestor (continues Albert) . . . believed in an infinite series of times, in a dizzily growing, ever-spreading network of diverging, converging and parallel times. This web of time – the strands of which approach one another, bifurcate, intersect, or ignore each other through the centuries – embraces every possibility. We do not exist in most of them. In some you exist and not I, while in others I do, and you do not, and in yet others both of us exist. In this one, in which chance has favoured me, you have come to my gate. In another, you, crossing the garden, have found me dead. In yet another, I say these very same words, but am an error, a phantom.’

After this peregrination towards the mysteries of the multiverse, it almost comes as an anti-climax to learn that the only reason Yu Tsun has decided to come to this house is to murder Albert, whose name will be splashed all across the newspapers the following day – thereby informing Yu Tsun’s spy chief in Berlin that Albert is the name of the northern French town from which the Allies are preparing a massive artillery offensive against the German lines.

The publication of Borges’ story predates the theory of multiple universes, as devised by Hugh Everett, by six years. A neat illustration of art anticipating science, perhaps, but also, as my own intuitions have led me to think, and young Francesco’s observation put into startling perspective, not entirely unusual or unprecedented: perhaps, as with the language faculty, we are somehow hard-wired to acquire this knowledge; perhaps we already know it.

A strange, archaic joy . . .

A few months ago, while on a residency at Banff, in the Canadian Rockies, I wrote about a serendipitous encounter with a black bear.

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This encounter, however fleeting, and with a distance of fifteen metres or so between us, at our closest, nonetheless filled me with a kind of awe, which I struggled in the following days to contextualise. I had never experienced anything quite like it, and explained it to myself and to my friends in what might – to some readers – appear as somewhat inflated or grandiose terms.  The truth was, I felt suffused at the time, and for a couple of days after, by something like deep contentment; as if I had been granted not only a profound and profoundly reassuring realisation of the relationship between the human and the animal, but equally (and which is perhaps the same thing) between aspects of my own identity – of the self or the soul – that I had barely considered before.

At the time of my encounter with the bear I had been reading Helen Macdonald’s memoir H is for Hawk and had been moved by the way Macdonald synthesised or channelled emotions of grief at the loss of her father though training a young goshawk. At one point in the book, she writes of a growing understanding of her hawk, Mabel:  ‘I am becoming fascinated by her quality of attention. I’m starting to believe in what Barry Lopez has called ‘the conversation of death’, something he saw in the exchange of glances between caribou and hunting wolves, a wordless negotiation that ends up with them working out whether they will become hunter and hunted, or passers-by.’

This detached summation of what we are in relation to another creature, or other creatures, is something we, as humans, have almost entirely lost sight of, or perhaps better expressed, lost contact with. Perhaps only in encounters in the wild is anything remotely similar ever evoked. And I am not claiming this happened with the black bear. I felt far too safe for that, and the bear . . . well, the bear seemed to be more interested in sniffing the flowers, to be honest, than in anything I was doing.

Further on in her story, Macdonald is discussing Rane Willerslev’s ethnography of time spent amid a Yukaghir community in Siberia: ‘The hunters, he wrote, think ‘humans and animals can turn into each other by temporarily taking on one another’s bodies.’ If you want to hunt elk, you dress in elkskins, walk like an elk, take on an elk’s alien consciousness. If you do this, elk will recognise you as one of their own and walk straight towards you . . . but [the] hunters consider these transformations very dangerous, because they can make you lose sight of your ‘original species identity and undergo an invisible metamorphosis.’ So, a warning here against anthropomorphism . . .

And at another point in the book, Macdonald says something for which I felt immediate identification and recognition, having visited the caves at Lascaux myself, as a young child – shortly before they were closed to public view in 1963 – an event which made a lasting impression on me. She says:

‘I remember a teacher showing us photographs of the cave paintings at Lascaux and explain that no one knew why prehistoric people drew these animals. I was indignant. I knew exactly why, but at that age was at a loss to put my intuition into words that made sense even to me.’

Why might this be? What was it that made MacDonald indignant, and which makes me exasperated at such a failure to see ourselves in relation to the natural world, and to pass on that ignorance to our children?

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Images from the caves at Lascaux, closed to the public since 1963.

Fortunately, there are some writers who attempt to evoke our relationships with animals with utter poise and lack of pretentiousness. Amongst these is Jean-Christophe Bailly, whose short book Le versant animal (2007) translated into English by Catherine Porter as The Animal Side (2011) begins with an extraordinary account of the author driving at night along a dark country road and encountering a solitary deer:

‘A deer has come out of the undergrowth; frightened, it runs up the road, trapped between hedgerows: it too is caught in the estuary. It rushes ahead, just as it is, just as it has to be – fear and beauty, quivering grace, lightness. The driver, going slowly now, follows the creature, watches its croup move up and down, bounding in its dance. A kind of hunt is under way, in which the goal is not – certainly not – to catch up, but simply to follow, and since this race takes longer than one might have imagined, several hundred metres, a strange joy comes, childlike, or perhaps archaic. Finally, another path opens up for the animal, and after hesitating ever so slightly the deer plunges in and disappears.’

It is this moment that Bailly describes – a strange joy . . . childlike, or perhaps archaic – that I want to think about, to write about . . . It is not only what I seem to recall from my visit to the Lascaux caves as a five-year old, but also the joy intuited by Macdonald in her childhood classroom, and quashed by her teacher’s remark that ‘no one knew why prehistoric people drew animals.’

Of course we knew! Children, perhaps, more than anyone else: we know it in the very fibre of our flesh. We need to draw the animals, and to sing the songs of the animals, for a very simple reason: we recognise them as both ourselves and as other, a simultaneous perception of identification and of othering; the elemental you and I, perceiver and perceived; the subject and object of all encounters. The essential paradox of being. And we needed to invoke that other – the bison, the buffalo, the deer – through what would later, and perhaps misleadingly, be termed sympathetic magic. Bailly writes eloquently on the subject in the next section of his little book, including the awkward reactions that such intense sentiments often give rise to:

‘I have become aware . . . that declarations of intense feelings on the subject of animals quite often not only fall flat but give rise to a sort of embarrassment, rather as though one had inadvertently crossed a line and gotten mixed up in something untoward, or even obscene . . . The truth is that a point of solitude is always reached in one’s relations with animals. When this point extends into a line and the line extends into an arch, a shelter takes shape, the very place where that solitude responds freely to its counterpart: a beloved animal. But as soon as we go outside the line and reveal our love (that solitude and that bond), those to whom we have taken the risk of speaking almost always pull back, in a move resembling the one we ourselves might have made upon encountering a similar admission by someone else. There is a very murky zone of affects here, involving in the first place our relationships with so called companion animals, pets, but a zone which nevertheless extends far beyond the merely private sphere: visits to a zoo or a game reserve, the positions we hold or adopt towards hunting or eating meat (“s’il est loisible de manger chair [if we are entitled to eat flesh],” as Amyot, translating Plutarch, put it so aptly); it is our entire relation to the animal world, or rather worlds, that is traversed by affect and that is troubled and troubling.’

Troubled and troubling it may be, but these animal encounters lie at the heart of so much that we human animals, once upon a time – not so long ago – experienced, day in, day out, over millions of years of evolution, in fact, when such thought was integral to everyday existence. As Claude Lévi-Strauss so appositely put it, animals were – and are – ‘good to think with’.

Nowadays, the closest most people are likely to get to such an animal encounter is with their pets – typically with the domestic cat or a dog – or perhaps when nervously passing a herd of frisky Friesians in a field; and for huge swathes of the urban population the vital, life-enhancing experience of coming face to face with animals in the wild is something they will never know; indeed the nearest they will come to encountering an animal in the flesh, as it were, will be biting into a Big Mac.

 

 

 

 

 

Ambivalence

 

I love you at ten in the morning, at eleven, at midday. I love you with all my soul and sometimes, on rainy evenings, with all my body. But at two in the afternoon, or at three, when I begin to think about the two of us, and you are thinking about preparing food or your daily tasks, or about the life you are not leading, I start to hate you mutely, with that portion of hatred I keep to myself.

Later, I return to loving you, as we lie down together and I feel that you are made for me, and that in a certain way your knees and your belly tell me as much, and my hands convince me of it, and there is no other place in the world where I might come, to which I would rather go, than your body. You come to meet me in your entirety, and the two of us disappear for an instant, we place ourselves in the mouth of God, until I tell you I am hungry or tired.

Every day I love you and hate you irremediably. And there are days, too, and hours, in which I do not know you, in which you are as strange to me as another man’s wife. Men worry me, I worry myself, my troubles distract me. Probably I don’t think about you for much of the time. You see: who could love you less than me, my love?  

This poem, which I have translated somewhat literally, is by the Mexican Jaime Sabines (1926-99), known intriguingly as el francotirador de la literatura (the sniper of literature). Readers of Spanish can find the original text at the bottom of this post. Although the poem carries the traces of its time and origins – the woman preparing the food and doing the housework, and the fateful phrase ‘another man’s wife’ (which I cannot truthfully translate any other way, unless I ‘adapted’ the poem into a more contemporary idiom) – the underlying premise of emotional ambivalence comes through with a persuasive vitality.

Ambivalence lies at the core of human sensibility, most evidently in the way one is capable of holding conflicting and even contradictory ideas about everyone and everything. In my case this also means ambivalence towards my own long-held opinions and perceptions, which can change their hue and texture over time or else be utterly transformed within nanoseconds; ambivalence towards people and things I hold dear; even ambivalence towards my memories, and – most decidedly – ambivalence towards my own writings, many of which I forget about as soon as they disappear into the void.   

Adam Phillips begins his fascinating essay ‘Against Self-Criticism’, which he can be seen reading on Youtube, with a perturbing insight into one of the most ambivalent – and fundamental – precepts of Christian faith:

‘Jacques Lacan famously remarked that there must surely be something ironic about Christ’s injunction to love thy neighbour as thyself, because actually people hate themselves. Indeed, it seemed rather as if, given the way people treat each other, they had always loved their neighbours in the way they loved themselves. That is, with a good deal of cruelty and disregard.’  

Perhaps, though, our ambivalence is more extensive, and more ambivalent, than our mere self-loathing might suggest. Phillips continues:

‘In Freud’s vision of things we are, above all, ambivalent animals: wherever we hate, we love; wherever we love, we hate. If someone can satisfy us, they can also frustrate us; and if someone can frustrate us, we always believe that they can satisfy us . . . Ambivalence does not, in the Freudian story, mean mixed feelings, it means opposing feelings. ‘Ambivalence has to be distinguished from having mixed feelings about someone,’ Charles Rycroft writes, in his appropriately entitled A Critical Dictionary of Psychoanalysis (as though an ‘Uncritical’ dictionary would be somehow simple-minded):

It refers to an underlying emotional attitude in which the contradictory attitudes derive from a common source and are interdependent, whereas mixed feelings may be based on a realistic assessment of the imperfect nature of the object.

‘Love and hate’ (Phillips continues) – ‘a too simple, or too familiar, vocabulary, and so never quite the right names for what we might want to say – are the common source, the elemental feelings with which we apprehend the world; and they are interdependent in the sense that you can’t have one without the other, and that they mutually inform each other. The way we hate other people depends on the way we love them, and vice versa. And given that these contradictory feelings are our ‘common source’ they enter into everything we do. They are the medium in which we do everything. We are ambivalent, in Freud’s view, about anything and everything that matters to us; indeed, ambivalence is the way we recognise that someone or something has become significant to us. This means we are ambivalent about ambivalence (and the forbidden, we should remember, is an object of desire, which is why is it forbidden) about love and hate and sex and each other and ourselves, and so on. Wherever there is an object of desire, in this account, there is ambivalence.’

Jaime Sabines’ poem can be heard on Youtube, read by the author, here.

Te quiero a las diez de la mañana, y a las once, y a las doce del día. Te quiero con toda mi alma y con todo mi cuerpo, a veces, en las tardes de lluvia. Pero a las dos de la tarde, o a las tres, cuando me pongo a pensar en nosotros dos, y tú piensas en la comida o en el trabajo diario, o en las diversiones que no tienes, me pongo a odiarte sordamente, con la mitad del odio que guardo para mí. 

Luego vuelvo a quererte, cuando nos acostamos y siento que estás hecha para mí, que de algún modo me lo dicen tu rodilla y tu vientre, que mis manos me convencen de ello, y que no hay otro lugar en donde yo me venga, a donde yo vaya, mejor que tu cuerpo. Tú vienes toda entera a mi encuentro, y los dos desaparecemos un instante, nos metemos en la boca de Dios, hasta que yo te digo que tengo hambre o sueño. 

Todos los días te quiero y te odio irremediablemente. Y hay días también, hay horas, en que no te conozco, en que me eres ajena como la mujer de otro. Me preocupan los hombres, me preocupo yo, me distraen mis penas. Es probable que no piense en ti durante mucho tiempo. Ya ves. ¿Quién podría quererte menos que yo, amor mío?

Insomnia and the Tasmanian Tiger

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As my insomnia has progressed over the years and has become the norm, rather than a ‘condition’ or illness, I have become expert at dressing in the dark. I seem to ‘see through’ the dark, in the same way that swimming underwater for long periods one begins to notice things in ways that the beginning snorkeler would not. As I reach for my clothes at four this morning, having failed the 15 minute rule (by which, if I haven’t returned to sleep after 15 minutes, I get up) I realise I can find my clothes without really looking for them, and this is not memory at play, so much as a kind of second sight, an ability to manoeuvre my way in pitch darkness.

This is not the only difference in my perception of darkness. Marina Benjamin remarks, in a lovely passage near the start of her recently-published account, Insomnia, that when she is up at night,

‘the world takes on a different hue. It is quieter and closer and there are textures of the dark I have begun paying attention to. I register the thickening, sense-dulling darkness that hangs velvety as a pall over deep night, and the green-black tincture you get when moisture charges the atmosphere with static. Then there is the gently shifting penumbra that heralds dawn and feels less like the suggestion of light than a fuzziness around the edges of your perception, as if an optician had clamped a diffusing lens over your eyes then quizzed you about the blurred shapes that dance at the peripheries of your vision. In sleeplessness I have come to understand that there is a taxonomy of darkness to uncover, and with it, a nocturnal literacy we can acquire.’

I like that, about the ‘nocturnal literacy’. I also feel as though I have learned to read the night, and by certain hints and textures within the darkness can guess with a high degree of accuracy what time it is when I awaken, if I have the good fortune to have fallen asleep, which usually takes place for the first couple of hours after going to bed, and usually while still reading (more on this phenomenon here).

These are the ‘good’ nights of insomnia, when sleep is achieved, even in relatively small doses. Two or three hours as a rule, four at a stretch, five a feast, six a bonanza. The bad nights are something else. The bad nights, or stretches of them, are less a topic for speculation, more a desire to shut down completely. And certainly not a matter for general discussion. I mean, I try not to mention my insomnia to people I don’t know well. I wrote about this once in injured tones:

‘An insomniac is never short of advice from well-meaning friends and relatives. Everyone has experienced difficulty in getting to sleep, and many people feel that this qualifies them to offer advice based on the authority of experience. “Oh, I have trouble sleeping”, they will tell you, and what they mean is that they have struggled from time to time to get to sleep, have tossed and turned for a while, or woken in the night and found it hard to return to their slumber; but essentially these setbacks rarely make a dent on their seven or eight hours of regular sleep.

Such people find it impossible to conceive of the extent of disability endured by a serious Contender for the World Title, such as myself. Let me make it clear that insomnia is not a question of simply not being able to get to sleep – it is, cumulatively, a massive derangement of the senses, a perpendicular longing, a lacuna within narrative time, a backsliding acceleration into the entrails of night, awaiting the dawn as a mortally injured man might await morphine, in the hope that with the light will come sleep, if only for an hour, or half an hour.’ (from The Vagabond’s Breakfast).

This was written in the Bad Old Days of my insomnia, back in the early years of the Millennium. I manage my sleeplessness better these days. And I read about the experience of others in this strange fellowship of insomniacs.

Here’s Teju Cole, from a delightful essay titled ‘Unnamed Lake’ in his collection, Known and Strange Things. It starts on a sleepless night:

‘I paced inside my own mind like a tiger inside its cage, like the Tasmanian tiger going back and forth, maddened by the prospect of its coming doom. Where I had been pinned down in sleeplessness by one small glare, my eyelids now trembled with the flashes coming from within. So quick was the succession of images, each one of which presented itself like a problem to be solved, that I could not at any instant remember what had gone before. It seemed to me instead that my consciousness had become like a narrow, high-walled corridor crammed with everything I had lately read or seen, every landscape I had recently passed through or touched on in my thoughts’

Cole’s narrative then progresses through a sequence of seemingly unconnected insomniac images and filmic accounts until settling on the Tasmanian tiger already mentioned:

‘In a small enclosure in Beaumaris Zoo in Hobart in 1933 . . . a Tasmanian tiger, or thylacine, paces. His name is Benjamin. He has a doglike head, and stripes on his back like a tiger. But he is neither canine nor felid; he is marsupial. He is also a carnivore, a hunting animal, though not an especially fast or particularly strong one.  The thylacine was first described in 1806 by Tasmania’s deputy surveyor-general George Harris: “Head very large, bearing a near resemblance to the wolf or hyena. Eyes large and full, black with a nictitant membrane which gives the animal a savage and malicious appearance.”’

Nictitant? Adapted for winking or blinking, according to the OED. Blinking before death?

Something about this passage fills me with foreboding, as though I know what is going to happen next. The pathos in that line: “he is . . a hunting animal, though not an especially fast or particularly strong one,” suggests, surely, that Benjamin, or his species, have been granted evolution’s short straw. ‘Doomed by poor DNA’ according to one article. The Tasmanian tiger was hunted to extinction, and Benjamin, the sole survivor of his race, was captured and placed in a cage, around which he paced, ceaselessly, as we can see from this footage on youtube, in a short sequence that fills me with tenderness and fear, and a terrible sense of the mutilated world.

 

Perhaps in response to this clip, or reflecting on the fates of animals in general, Cole, in his essay, comes up with the image of an unnamed lake that lies ‘underneath all reality’ and it is precisely there, I feel, that we might find the thylacine, Benjamin, and perhaps all other lost and extinct matter.

‘At moments, you may notice that what you are looking at contains both its own obliteration (the promise of death) and a curious quantity of eternity, like a single body possessed by two spirits. Survival and extinction are both indelibly there. There is a quality of listening in the dead of the night (the “dead” of the night) that is perhaps not conducive to writing or interpretation, but that heightens the possibilities of what can be heard, or that might lead one to believe that there is an unnamed lake underneath all reality, and that there are places where the ground, insufficiently firm, can suddenly plunge one through into the subterranean truth of things.’

The cartography of chance

Someone once told me, and it’s not an unreasonable assumption, that children who spend hours poring over maps are destined to become travellers. I remember spending rainy afternoons immersed in an ancient atlas when I was still very young, and in my late teens I pinned a map of South America to my bedroom wall, even though I wouldn’t actually go there until I was nearly fifty. Delayed gratification, perhaps, of a self-preservatory kind.

The Stowaway cover proofWhen I was asked, a few months ago, if I had any ideas for the cover of my new collection of poems, Stowaway: A Levantine Adventure, published this month by Seren, I knew that I wanted a map of the eastern Mediterranean, the area in which the miscreant stowaway of the title ploughs his watery furrow. I wanted an old map, and conducted some online research, eventually finding a series of  prints from the Catalan Atlas, which was published in 1375, and attributed to Abraham Cresques, a Jewish map-maker from Mallorca, who, along with his son Jafudà, was responsible for some of the most beautiful maps of the period. In an interesting twist, considering the subject matter of Stowaway, Jafudà became a converso following the persecutions of 1391, and changed his name to Jaume Riba.

After some initial resistance, the publishers eventually accepted my idea of a map, and found a way of adapting the one I had in mind for the cover of the book. And that, I thought, was that.

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In July this year, we visited Palma de Mallorca to attend the International Robert Graves Conference, and on the first day, after visiting the Cathedral and the Almudaina Palace in the morning, we ambled through the city with no particular destination in mind. Lunch was a couple of hours away, and there was no hurry. The day was hot, and the lanes overlooking the bay offered shade. I noticed a museum, the Museu Fundación Juan March, and we went in. The place was completely empty.  An series of Dalí prints, an exhibition of pessebres (nativity scenes, but expanded into extraordinarily detailed arenas of daily life in a medieval town, with all the craftsmen and merchants and peasants at work, which are called Neapolitan Pessebres). And upstairs, to my delight, a small collection of medieval maps – of the same appearance, I thought, as the one I had found for the cover of Stowaway – but not, however, from the Catalan Atlas of Abraham and Jafudà Cresques: these, I since learned, are held in the Bibliothèque National de France (such as the one in the image above) and the Maritime Museum, close to where I once lived in Barcelona.

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In one of these photos I accidentally caught a reflection of Mrs Blanco, standing behind me, mirrored by the glass of a map, in a place we hadn’t intended going, but into which, by that strange reflective symmetry that governs the universe, we had unwittingly wandered.

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Views from the map room.

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A red chest, for the storing of maps.

 

A poem on the sky

 

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Reading Jean-Christophe Bailly’ The Animal Side, I find this lovely passage about watching a murmur of starlings:

‘ . . . one evening on the Loire and over a period of hours, the perpetual movement of a flock of starlings endlessly forming liquid figures, a triangulation of black dots departing, then suddenly turning back like iron filings attracted by an invisible magnet moving in the sky. Nothing more, perhaps: only flight, the idea of flight, embodied in flight as we see it and as it comes and goes before our eyes – and precisely as if there were in it, in its very dependence and in its pure effect of law, of a law actualized, a condensation of what is not only free but truly liberated and activated in the sky, the signature of pure intoxication with living, in a singular and dreamy beat.’

So I dig out this sequence of photos I took three years ago, on the road from Perelada to Mollet, with the Alberas behind, and the starlings doing their thing, writing a poem on the sky.

Dance in the Rockies

 

L-E-V Dance Company is the creation of choreographer Sharon Eyal and co-director Gai Behar. The show they performed at the Banff Centre on Friday night is called OCD Love, a powerful and darkly compelling work. The piece was inspired, writes Sharon Eyal in the programme notes, by a text entitled ‘OCD’ by Neil Hilborn. ‘I couldn’t stop reading it’ she says, ‘for me it was already choreography.’

According to The Guardian review (a London performance was staged at Sadler’s Wells in 2016): ‘A female dancer appears to be the piece’s subject, and while she strives fearfully for autonomy, it becomes clear that she is animated by the five others, who form a shadow-corps around her. She can never escape them for long, and at times they wholly control her, physically manipulating her every move.’

It seems reductive to attempt a summary of a dance show that evades easy narrativisation, and which successfully elicits the whole spectrum of human emotion. In the closing minutes of the dance, as the group of dancers moves slowly away towards the back of the stage, I was transfixed by the backward gaze of the female protagonist as she, alone among them, kept looking back at us, the audience, until one of the male dancers took her face between his hands and pulled it towards his own, the action coming over as one of sublimated violence, which has been present – though by no means always sublimated –  throughout the piece. We know that there is something compelling her to look back, just as there always was, always will be; the object of her gaze might be ‘us’, the unseen others, it might be her own past, or something she simply forgot along the way. She wants to look back because that is what we do when returning from the underworld, but we, the unseen others in this drama, are not there; we, of all people, are nowhere.

 

‘Almost hypnotically attuned to each other’: L-E-V’s dancers in OCD Love.

The Bear

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The road is empty, straight, the peaks of the Rockies crowning the road ahead. It is early morning and the shadows are long. The bear appears on the left and lumbers across the highway, two hundred yards ahead, glances once towards us, but continues on his way. I pull over, crawl beside the guard rail, and then we spot him: he has crossed the deep ditch beside the road and is climbing, foraging on the grassy hillside. I am drawn to him by a force beyond reason, elemental, and something new stirs within me, asking for a space to grow; it feels like love, but with no particular destination, and is carried on the air with the scent of juniper.

Today is National Indigenous People’s day in Canada, also the summer solstice, and I read that according to indigenous beliefs, if we cross paths with a bear we should take the time to envelope ourselves in solitude and silence for a spell, with a view to better understanding stuff. I’d say that’s not such a bad idea at any time. When the world has gone crazy, something as simple as meeting a bear can bring a sense of perspective, if only for a short while.

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