Thursday 5 August 2010

The Solitary Reader, by Sonia Zyngier

Amongst the events at the recent conference in Utrecht of the International Society for Research on Literature (IGEL 2010) was an invitation to all those who registered to enter a competition for an essay on the concept of stillness. The competition was organized by Frank Hakemulder and Emy Koopman. "Stillness," said the invitation, "signifies the counterweight against our hectic, stressful everyday existence. To give a preliminary definition we would say that it is an emotion of calmness and/or reflection which can be evoked by beauty. But of course, you are free to give your own, diverting, thoughts on the matter. For the contest we would like you to respond to the following question: What particular piece of fiction (novel, short story, movie, play) contributes best to ‘stillness’ according to you and why?"

The organizers of the competition found an extraordinary variety in the essays, and awarded three equal first place positions. Each winner read his or her essay to a plenary session at the conference, and an arrangement was made to publish their winning essays on OnFiction. One of the winners was Sonia Zyngier, of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, and her essay appears below. The two other winning essays will appear here in one week and two weeks' time.

The Solitary Reader
To start by saying that stillness is a fuzzy and complex concept would be too easy. How can one explain the overwhelming feeling of peace that takes hold of oneself at a certain moment? An “emotion of calmness”? This sounds rather paradoxical as stillness involves progressive alienation from external stimuli. I am referring to that moment induced by a memory, by the silence which hangs in the air, magically, after a musical performance, just before the audience breaks into applause, or by the language which disconnects the reader from the immediate context or circumstance. To an external observer, the experiencer may be immobile. On the contrary, the feeling of rapture which comes into play opens the way to a different frame of mind, one in which contemplation prevails.

But would “stillness” be the best word for this feeling? It does cover part of what is needed: a state of inactivity and absence of physical disturbance. According to the Oxford English Dictionary it implies “freedom from tumult, strife, or agitation”. Indeed, to experience it, the pace must be reduced, the pitches lowered, focus and concentration obtained. In order to listen to Saint-Saëns’s “The Swan”, one must have silence and a sense of removal from the where, the when and the why. One just needs to allow the soft sounds to do their work of transportation into this different sphere. When watching films like the recent release “Mademoiselle Chambon”, for instance, we sit in darkness and silence, and allow the slow narrative and poetic photographic takes to do they work on us and help us achieve the balance necessary for this state of quiescence to be installed.

Turning the focus more specifically to literature, how do authors use language which may result in the reader’s loss of the sense of immediacy and that of time? The mechanisms may vary, such as identification with the character, or “imaginative participation”. But not all art, be it filmic, plastic or literary lead into this state. Dan Brown’s and some of Charles Dickens’s novels, although well-written, never reach the effect that the end of Joyce’s “The Dead” has on the reader:
Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain … His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe, and faintly falling like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
The snow is a perfect image: silent and silencing, peacefully covering both the quick and the dead. Another illustration is the quiet moment in which Woolf describes how Mrs. Dalloway finds a brief retreat from her ebullience into a dark room from where she has a glimpse of an old lady closing a window next door. Here is how she words this vision:
it was fascinating, with people still laughing and shouting in the drawing-room, to watch that old woman, quite quietly, going to bed alone. She pulled the blind now. The clock began striking. The young man had killed himself; but she did not pity him. With the clock striking the hour, one two, three, she did not pity him, with all this going on. There! The old lady had put out her light! The whole house was dark now with this going on, she repeated, and the words came to her, Fear no more the heat of the sun. She must go back to them. But what an extraordinary night!
Woolf’s ability to choose words and place them in such an order activates the move into a space away from chronology and immediacy. By de-familiarizing the reader’s experience, the perception is prolonged and the reader progresses from the words on the page to a state of contemplation. No matter how brief it may be, the experience arrests time and the reader is set against the grain of modern life, with its emphasis on speed productivity and success.

But if we are to search for more illustrations of stillness, nothing compares to the production of the Romantic poets, contemplative bards par excellence. Wordsworth’s insight as he sees and hears a reaper, bending over her sickle, makes the year 1803 and his Scottish tour dissolve in thin air:
Behold her, single in the field,
Yon solitary Highland lass!
Reaping and singing by herself;
Stop here, or gently pass!
Alone she cuts and binds the grain,
And sings a melancholy strain;
O listen! for the vale profound
Is overflowing with the sound.

No nightingale did ever chaunt
More welcome notes to weary bands
Of travelers in some shady haunt,
Among Arabian sands:
A voice so thrilling ne'er was heard
In springtime from the cuckoo-bird,
Breaking the silence of the seas
Among the farthest Hebrides.

Will no one tell me what she sings?--
Perhaps the plaintive numbers flow
For old, unhappy, far-off things,
And battles long ago:
Or is it some more humble lay,
Familiar matter of today?
Some natural sorrow, loss, or pain,
That has been, and may be again?

Whate'er the theme, the maiden sang
As if her song could have no ending;
I saw her singing at her work,
And o'er the sickle bending;--
I listened, motionless and still;
And, as I mounted up the hill
The music in my heart I bore,
Long after it was heard no more.
The vision enriches the observer, as he constructs the poem hearing the song that remained in his heart. To arrive at this state, Wordsworth had to “listen ... motionless and still”. The tempo is largo, the pitch low.

Far from being a divine or special gift -- although religion does resort to it – stillness is a necessary human condition. Our brain has developed in such manner that it enables us to reflect, to appreciate, to feel in many complex ways. Stillness allows us to disengage ourselves from all kinds of constraints of everyday life and let our mental energies be mobilized into suspended states of contemplation, which enables us to re-evaluate our existence. Here, Rodin’s words on art can be extended to stillness: “ It is not only a question of intellectual pleasure … but of much more … Art shows man his raison d’être. It reveals to him the meaning of life, it enlightens him upon his destiny, and consequently points him on his way.” In stillness the mental apparatus refuels itself, gains new energy to proceed and to create again and again, as Wordsworth and many other artists did.
Sonia Zyngier

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Unknown said...

This essay really transmits the idea of stillness intended. It is beautifully written and it certainly deserved the prize. I think that reading, being immersed in a book that captures our interest is a kind of meditation. It can bring peace to our mind, and a retreat from the noise and the stresses of daily life in our contemporary society.

Maria Lucia Seidl-de-Moura

Unknown said...

I would like to thank Maria Lucia Seidl-de-Moura for her kind words. It is a pleasure to see that my contribution has been worth the effort. I would also like to congratulate the organizers of the competition for getting off the ground the project of refining collectively the notion of stillness and the role art plays in promoting it. Indeed, arriving at this state is a conscious path which requires the cessation of everyday stress. Sitting down to write this essay has been a reminder that, irrespective of where you are or how busy you may think you may be, stepping out into an imaginary garden from where you can experience a work of art will bring about the delicate balance needed for making our existence worth it.

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