Monday, 18 July 2011

Learning recklessness and embodied skill

At a recent reading by Per Petterson, my husband I are were the only two people in a large auditorium who had not read the novel Out Stealing Horses; having now read it myself apparently that much later than everyone else, I'm assuming there aren't that many people for whom I risk spoiling the book's plot--for those who are concerned, the theme of most interest to me reveals rather little in the way of traditional plot, even if it represents a central thread of the book's trajectory.

In this story, about the nominally central themes of which I will say nothing else, Petterson does a very nice job attending to the centrality of material practice in human interaction.

In three measured passages (at the opening, a third of the way into the story, and again two-thirds of the way through), Out Stealing Horses presents a particular strategy of an inward-turned person who explores the world--in both its domain of symbolic meaning and also its physical manifestation--by mimicking the actions of others, and then figuring out what those actions reveal about what needs to be done.

In the first passage (p. 18), the narrator describes the revelation of the world that had come through one of his most significant boyhood friendships:

What he had taught me was to be reckless, taught me that if I let myself go, did not slow myself down by thinking too much beforehand I could achieve many things I would never have dreamt possible.

This theme is picked up again twice, with one event marking each of the narrator's two other central relationships in the book. As part of the extended reminisce about his father that structures the story, the narrator reveals the way his father's approach to the world has structured his own, even if he is sure that the world does not reveal itself to him in the same easy way, except for what he can glean through the mediation of these memories of his father
(page 69):

What I do, which I have never let anyone know, is I close my eyes every time I have to do something practical apart from the daily chores everyone has, and then I picture how my father would have done it or how he actually did do it while I was watching him, and then I copy that until I fall into the proper rhythm, and the task reveals itself and grows visible, and that’s what I have done for as long as I can remember, as if the secret lies in how the body behaves towards the task at hand, in a certain balance when you start, like hitting the board in a long jump and the early calculation of how much you need, or how little, and the mechanism that is always there in every kind of job; first one thing and then the other, in a context that is buried in each piece of work, in fact as if what you are going to do already exists in its finished form, and what the body has to do when it starts to move is to draw aside the veil so it all can be read by the person observing. And the person observing is me, and the man I am watching, his movements and skills, is a man of barely forty...
And again, on page 141, the narrator describes using his body in a way mediated through the bodily movements of another:

I like watching Lars work. I would not call him brisk, but he is systematic and moves more elegantly up to the birch trunk with the heavy saw in his grasp than he does out on the road with Poker. His style infects my style, and that is how it usually is for me; the movement first and then the comprehension, for gradually I realize that the way he bends and moves and sometimes twists around and leans is a logical way of balancing against the supple line between the body's weight and the tug of the chain as it takes hold of the trunk, and all this to give the saw easiest access to the goal with the least possible damage to human body, exposed as it is; one moment strong and unassailable, and then a crash, and suddenly ripped to shreds like a doll can be, and then everything is gone and ruined forever, and I do not know whether he thinks like this, Lars, as he wields the chainsaw with such aplomb.

From the depths of a bookish sensibility, it is wonderful to have such moments of bodily awareness, and such sociality of being materially in the world, with and through others.

Per Petterson (2003/2007). Out Stealing Horses. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press.

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