Thursday, February 2, 2012

On poetic faith

               Reading draws me closer to my most centered, sacred self. I read to escape. I read to connect.
               I open the book’s cover, turn a page and whoosh, I leave quotidian clutter –  dusty floors, dirty dishes,  bills and bank account balances. I don’t see laundry, clutter or what my husband calls my nest – the thatching of books, papers and blankets that surround me. I forget about politics, people who annoy me, things I said but  wish I didn’t, things I should have  said but didn’t  and stories that run through my head.  I barely hear the television, phone or my husband asking me how to spell a word. Like the girl in the bubble, I am (almost) impervious to infectious interruptions and real-life distractions.
               Like Max in Where the Wild Things Are, I watch a new world grow around me. I enter wholeheartedly. I bound off, take sail.
               In his Biographia Literaria Samuel Taylor Coleridge describes this as “the willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.”  For me there is little willing; it just happens – and lasts more than moments.  Since adolescence, poetic faith has often come easier than religious faith.  Put another way, it is easier suspend disbelief in a good book than in many churches I’ve attended. There is often some niggling part of the canon or the doctrine that gets in the way of God. But a church isn’t God, and a book isn’t always fictive or non-fictive truth.
               Sometimes, doubt creeps in as I read. I speed ahead, move on or dwell on my unwillingness to go with the book’s flow. The last action sends me directly into my thinking head. I’m dwelling on a book, rather than a person or idea that annoys me. Same bad loop, different target.
                This happened recently. When asked “What do you want for Christmas?,” I thought book, then what book? I picked from a list of a best books, a book that was getting lots of hoopla and notable endorsements, a book I knew little about.
I read the whole thing. Now, I know too much.  I started to brood and write about all my reasons for disliking this book when I realized I had misplaced antagonism. It wasn’t the book that irritated me as much as the marketing. I took a page from a character in Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table, one of my new favorite books. Miss Lasqueti reads crime novels from the deck chair of an ocean liner and when she doesn’t care for them, she flings them overboard.  I love that gesture. And so I mentally tossed out this work of highly touted literary fiction and watched it sink into the deep blue sea.
               My ease in practicing poetic faith leads me to better understand the other kind, and I make those leaps too.  Reading is high up on the spiral inward as I imagine it, somewhere less drifty than daydreaming, but more active than the states described in the Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras: Pratyahara, a withdrawal/control the senses, Dharana – one pointed focus or concentration and Dhyana:  a state of meditation.
I wonder if neuroscientists stuck electrodes all over my head while I read what they might learn about my suspended state. In the last few days news out of UCC Berkeley describes how it’s possible to decode single heard words, news that has led to “mind-reading” headlines, headlines then cleverly debunked in the first paragraph as well, not really mind reading but getting closer.  I most like the LA Times description of it as mind listening or eavesdropping.
(For those interested in the science here’s a link to the paper by Brian Pasley, a neuroscientist at UC Berkeley and lead author of the "Reconstructing Speech From Human Auditory Cortex,";jsessionid=F6204EAE7CA5D03F83C4BC791EBEEFDD) Google mind reading in news for various reports of the story.
So far, says the LA Times, “the researchers’ brain code allows them to translate only words that the brain actually hears, not words that the brain thinks up on its own.”
If journalists can imagine this as a step towards mind reading, it’s less of a leap for me to imagine scientists reading the story in my mind as I read it on the page. Questions: Would it be a different story?  Would it record backtracking, interpreting, connecting and niggling?  What would flinging the book overboard look like to electrode readers? Finally, would it record the kind of serenity described as a quality in another character in Ondaatje’s in The Cat’s Table?The narrator Michael describes a reader:

Mr. Fonseka seemed to draw forth an assurance of a calming quality from the books he read. He’d gaze into an unimaginable distance (one could almost see the dates flying off the calendar) and quote lines written in stone or papyrus. …..Mr. Fonseka would not be a wealthy man. And it would be a spare life he would be certain to lead as a schoolteacher in some urban location. But he had a serenity that came with the choice of the life he wanted to live. And this serenity and certainty I have seen only among those who have the armour of books close by.”
I surround myself with stacks. I helmet my head with words. I cover my heart with the armour of books.


  1. Gosh I love your language! It transports me. Today, on the first birthday of my blog, I am so moved to think that somehow my blog encouraged your beautiful and evolving rumination on the books you read, the thoughts they inspire, and the associations you make. The next sentence in your blog post might be,"And I come back to the present with my own words to inspire and move my readers". But I know you would never say that. That's why I said it instead. xoxo

  2. Wow, that would be an interesting study.

  3. Very nice, especially your last sentence.