Life and language – an eternal golden braid
A friend of mine found a novel way to follow the construction of a house across the road from his own. On the same day every week at roughly the same time he photographed the structure as it grew from nothingness to an indeterminate shape to a completed building. And when it was done, he presented an album of these pictures to the owner.
I have always been struck by the story for what it said about my friend, how creativity is a motivation in itself and for the final thoughtful gesture.
More recently I have been thinking about that gesture in a completely different context. It has to do with reading a book. About how we see a reflection of ourselves in a book that we might read over a lifetime. Just like a building, if it had life, might see itself being reflected on the lens of a camera over the period of its ‘growth’.
The Greek philosopher Heraclitus said we cannot step into the same river twice; it is not the same book we read every time we reread it. There is more in us than there was before. A book tells us about itself and its author. It also tells us about ourselves. We bring to the act of reading our experiences, our prejudices, our expectations, our judgements – and all of these change over time, the one influencing the other.
You only have to reread a book after many years to see how much you remember incorrectly or how your original interpretation that had seemed so obvious and inevitable now appears trite and wrong. Sometimes the authors you thought were great appear anything but (and vice versa). The book obviously hasn’t changed; you have.
I have had this issue with D H Lawrence, for example. The first book I read of his was The Virgin and the Gypsy. I remember wondering why so much was made of him as a writer. Then I read the naughty parts of Lady Chatterley’s Lover and found them hilarious. These ruined Lawrence for me till many years later I read Sons and Lovers and began to understand him better.
Will I enjoy Ulysses as much now as when I read it in college?
Perhaps a great writer is someone who can be reread many times without exhausting either the reader or the interpretative range of his work. There is more you see in him, and by extension, in yourself. Is that why Shakespeare stands alone? Is that why he has always been a contemporary writer no matter what the year or century? In his recent book, Shakespearean, Robert McCrum argues that Shakespeare has been “always modern”. He points out how we turn to him in years of crisis and disruption (like now).
Perhaps that is the answer. One should reread Shakespeare at regular intervals. And use his works as the lens through which to view one’s growth. It would make for an internal autobiography – the most honest one ever.
(Suresh Menon is Contributing Editor, The Hindu).