Waiting for sunrise, drinking coffee and noticing how the temperature is falling, a sudden chill and hint of ice in the lamplit atmosphere, shivering with cold and looking around for my woollen mittens, lost your mittens?/you naughty kittens!/now you shall have no pie. Mother Goose nursery rhymes shaped my literary subconscious so profoundly at the age of five. The Man in the Moon came tumbling down/ And asked the way to Norwich.
To wake early is a pleasure I never get used to — the rest of the village fast asleep, birds silent, the sickle of moon glimpsed between tall pines at the back, owls coming back after a night hunting across the valley and fields, dogs curled up snoring. Just me with a notebook in a circle of lamplight, writing and letting the mind glean all kinds of impressions from fading dreams and half-awake intuitions. The moon sharp and bright as a splinter.
There was an old woman tossed up in a basket
Nineteen times as high as the moon;
Where she was going I couldn’t but ask it,
For in her hand she carried a broom.
“Old woman, old woman, old woman,” quoth I,
“O whither, O whither, O whither, so high?”
“To brush the cobwebs off the sky!”
“Shall I go with thee?” “Aye, by and by.”
What we put into our minds, how we nurture intelligence, what lodges in the memory like a fixed burning image or offkey note and rhythms, the riddles, the jokes and counting games we played as children. What is pablum, not worth recalling, what frightens or enlightens. Not yet dawn and I think of ISIS militants using sledgehammers, bulldozers, and explosives to destroy the eighth-century citadel of the Assyrian king Sargon II at Khorsabad in northern Iraq, and the colossal statues of human-headed winged bulls that had guarded it. History obliterated along with the lessons we learn from history. Writer Toni Morrison and others excoriating those who cannot unlearn whiteness as privilege, the resurgence in sexist hate speech against women gamers or columnists on the Internet, the belligerence and refusal to listen to minority outrage, the quandaries of climate change, the greed of financial elites, the world turning and altering even as the sun breaks through a rim of darkness (so rapid and dramatic, sunrise in an African valley). Open on my desk, the novel Satantango from László Krasznahorkai who has just won the Man Booker prize for literature, a discomfiting but visionary writer.
The stories brim with precise detail and exact technical language – about preparing pigments in a Florentine Renaissance painter’s studio, or the post-show social obligations of a Noh actor – and though this sometimes feels oppressive or otiose, Krasznahorkai seems to wish to direct the reader towards a kind of precise attentiveness to phenomena that he sees as lying at the core of the artist’s practice. His study of Japan has introduced the aesthetic concepts of mono no aware (sensitivity to the transience of things) and wabi sabi (acceptance of transience and imperfection) to the inheritor of a Christian tradition of aesthetics founded on perfection and transcendence.
The sun rises like some feverish creature, flushed and noisy — birds wake, there are cars passing on this quiet road, the valley is waking, church bells for post-Matins, ping of a microwave oven in the kitchen, dogs barking. Colder than ever, brilliant freezing landscape and the challenge again to start over as writers, to see what we exclude from fear or ignorance, to let in voices we have not heard, to unmuffle our senses and take in all that is discordant and angry, all we regard as Other, all that keeps crying out for justice, for change, for redemption even. Precise attentiveness to phenomena. What a line on the page might make new.