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This blog makes liberal use of AB's journals, letters, travel notes, and other sources.


And make sure to visit The Arnold Bennett Society for expert information and comment on all aspects of the life and work of AB.

Monday, 31 August 2015

The Eye's Mind

For many years now I have sought opportunities to talk to people about how they think, by which I mean whether they have access to visual imagery. Most do - in fact I have yet to come across anybody who hasn't, though the question often prompts discussion about just what is meant by visual imagery. My impression is that very few people have really considered their thinking process, and generally assume that everybody thinks in more or less the same way they do. The discussions are usually non-productive, mainly, I think, because language is inadequate to convey mental experience in any way which allows two people to communicate effectively.

So, I was pleased to read recently that a research project has started in to the phenomenon of "aphantasia" - the name suggested by the researchers for a lack of visual imagery. See http://medicine.exeter.ac.uk/research/neuroscience/theeyesmind/ for more information including an interesting presentation summarising the experience of a number of visual artists.

I have no visual imagery now (I am aphantasic!) but I think I did have some visual imagery as a child and young person. I can remember having had visual daydreams and have recently recalled an experience from my mid-teens when, during an history exam, I can recall that I "saw" pages of text sort of hovering in front of me and was able to copy it onto my answer paper. I also think that I have visual imagery in dreams, though I rarely remember dreams - perhaps that is because I lack visual imagery in waking life?

So what do my thought processes consist of? What am I doing when I access a memory? It seems that language is at the centre of my thinking; my sense is of an almost constant internal monologue (sometimes a dialogue) which I am "hearing". I do in fact feel as if I can hear sounds in my head so I have a mind's ear if not a mind's eye. It would be interesting to know if those people who have strong visual imagery also have an auditory imagination, or is there some trade-off between the senses? I also have a strong spatial sense; it is as if I can "feel" the physical relationship between things even though I can't see them. As for remembering, if I try hard to bring say a person to mind then it is as if I am hearing myself describe them, usually unsuccessfully.

I find this a fascinating topic and am looking forward to the outcome of the Exeter research project, though I suspect it will throw up more questions than it does answers.


Thursday, 27 August 2015

The meaning of music

I have never understood music. By that statement I mean that I have never felt engaged or moved by music in the way some other people seem to be. I have often heard people say how important music is in their lives, that they could not "live" without it, and it seems to be very hard in the modern world to get away from music. I just find it annoying, and cannot remember the last time I purposely listened to a piece of music of any sort. There are some songs (usually 1960s/70s pop songs) which carry me back in time, but it seems to me that it is the association that is significant, not the music itself. I have tried to embrace various types of music over the years and have occasionally almost convinced my self that I enjoyed them, but it never lasted.

Image result for orfeo powersSo, all the more strange that a novel I have just finished makes me feel that I have been missing out on something special. The novel being Richard Powers' "Orfeo". It has as its central character an avant-garde modern composer; not simply a composer though, but a man who is musically literate to a degree I had not conceived. I can only guess that Powers himself is similarly gifted which makes me feel doubly envious - surely it is unfair that the man can write so well and understand music! The book traces the life of the composer Peter Els from childhood to age 70, detailing his relationships, (small) successes, frequent failures, uncertainties, mistakes and personal losses. Above all though it is an account of his immersion in music. Woven into Els' story, in the compass of a conventionally sized novel, are ideas about obsession, the recent history of America, mental illness, ageing, art ....... And sometimes Powers' imaginative use of language leaves this reader at least breathless with wonder. Perhaps words and music for Powers are inter-related? What can it be like to be Richard Powers?

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

The Blindfold

Image result for Hustvedt BlindfoldI have felt more intrigued by this book than by any I have recently read. It was in fact a rather painful read being an account in the first person of a young woman's experience of mental instability - I can only surmise from the powerful sense of authenticity that the author (Siri Hustvedt) has herself experienced something similar.



It is a short novel but contains a great deal to challenge the reader - the nature and role of memory; what is "normal"; questions of gender and sexual identity; moral uncertainty. It seems that in the novel Iris, a very intelligent but highly insecure post-graduate student, is looking back over about 8 years of her life at various events, incidents and relationships which she presumably considers to have been formative. We are given no indication of her mental or emotional state at point of narration, though it might be guessed that the recollection is some form of therapy.The structure is disjointed, and probably intentionally so, to reflect the mental state of the narrator. Strange names appear, such as "Mr. Morning" and "Paris" (a man); the narrator's name is Iris Vegan though she uses pseudonyms at various times. 

The whole novel is an act of remembering and a central theme of the work is about the nature of memory - do we remember things as they were or are memories primarily a construction? It is not impossible that the whole novel, presented as Iris's memories, are in fact simply her fantasies. Much is made of Iris recalling in detail, at a dinner party, a particular painting and giving a minute description of it, but failing to remember a significant element. So her account of her experiences may also be unreliable.

Why is the novel titled "The Blindfold"? Certainly there is an incident involving a blindfold but it seems no more significant in itself than various other things that happen to Iris. Perhaps there is an implication that her cumulative experiences have resulted in a new clarity of vision about herself, as if a blindfold has been removed? At various points in the novel she sees herself in a mirror and seems surprised that what she sees does not correspond to how she thought of herself, though this seems to have little effect on her behaviour.

There are hints of sexual ambiguity at various points in the novel - Iris herself adopts a semi-male identity for a period. It is implied that some of the male characters may in fact be bi-sexual, and some others are borderline deviants. There is a disturbing scene in a mental ward where she imagines (?) being sexually assaulted by an elderly female patient. Iris is presented as being sexually active, sexually interested, and attractive, but sex is not enough for her, and her motivations for engaging in relationships are unclear, especially to herself.

The reader is not told much about her background but it seems clear that she is divorced physically and intellectually from her home environment. She is attempting to swim in an unfamiliar and, at times, hostile milieu, and seems likely to drown. The way she presents, and apparently sees, herself is as a reflection of others. It seems that Iris is in fact searching for an identity, and consistently failing to find one. The book ends abruptly and it may be that the title in fact suggests that she remains blindfolded in spite of all she has experienced.

I was gripped by this novel, and am sure that some aspects of it will remain with me. My sense is that it is about as close as a "normal" person is likely to come to experiencing what it is like to be mentally ill.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Revisiting Bestwood




June 21st.

I have just finished re-reading "Sons and Lovers" which I came back to with some trepidation anticipating, from memory, a bleak experience. It is an intense, unyielding read. There is no humour in it whatsoever which is, to my mind, a significant failing. Perhaps Lawrence didn't have a sense of humour? Certainly none of the charactrers in this novel have, and maybe that is true of the rest though I have to admit that this is the only one of his novels that I have read in its entirety.

He can write though! Some of the scenes are exceptionally well imagined. I am thinking for example of the death of Mrs. Morel, and Paul's early contacts with Clara. I particularly like the dialogues when he deploys the local dialect with its archaic expressions. But it is all so intense that it gives me a headache and I find myself skipping paragraphs because I can't bear to read of yet another episode of soul-searching.

Overall I think that the father, Walter Morel, comes across as the most 'real', human figure in the book, and I felt sorry for him throughout the novel. Of course he is very flawed, not much of a husband or father, but he feels to me to be authentic, a man of his time and place. He is excluded from his family it seems to me for no other reason than being himself. Whilst psychological suffering is at the core of all Lawrence's characters, Morel suffers more than most because he has no insight into why he is being made to suffer.

As for Paul, I imagine that his portrayal is largely autobiographical with a certain amount of wish-fulfillment for good measure. He is not a likeable character and, to my way of thinking, not really credible in the context within which he is placed. Some of this aversion may be due to the relationship described with his mother which makes me uncomfortable, and I recall now that I found myself backing away from it on my first reading many years ago. Maybe I am just being oversensitive, or failing to grasp the context properly? I don't think that Lawrence's female characters are at all convincing - he seems to have a rather idealised view of women and makes that the basis for his characters, or at least the main ones; the minor female characters are much better.

Overall it is obvious why this has become a literary classic. It is a feat of sustained, powerful writing, and an important social-historic document. But for myself, I think this will be my last visit to Bestwood.

Additionally see "A cry for help" at
http://earnoldbennett.blogspot.co.uk/2014/02/a-cry-for-help.html

Saturday, 13 June 2015

A I

The movie "Ex Machina" is in the long line of science fiction speculations about the nature and potential consequences of artificial intelligence. For the benefit of atracting movie goers the AI in this case is lodged within a sexy female robot body, and the plot turns on 'her' ability to manipulate a hapless male by the use of sexuality. However, the real crux of the movie is about the right of the AI to sustain its existence in relation to its human creator.


Image result for ex machina



It appears that consciousness is an emergent property of complex nervous systems, and that self-consciousness arises at a high level of complexity. Clearly neither consciousness nor self-consciousness is confined to homo sapiens. In principle then there is no reason why a sufficiently complex artificial network should not become conscious, and technological progress makes this likely in the foreseeable future. It seems more likely that a network rather than an individual machine will first attain consciousness. Perhaps it has already happened?

What about the next stage? If a network became conscious of 'itself', what would that mean, and could we recognise that it had taken place? Would it depend in fact on the new entity actively communicating its presence to us? Presumably with an intention to prevent us inadvertently changing its configuration or, crucially, turning it off.

These are recurring issues in fiction from "Frankenstein", through "2001" to "Ex Machina". They may soon become issues of fact.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Ennui

Friday, September 2nd., Les Sablons.

I did no work since Monday.

On Tuesday I went to Paris. Lunch at Martin's (his cousin Eugene was there). I met Lee Mathews at Hotel St. James at 6.10. We discussed plays and his projects till 7.20. Caught 7.55 home, for  bread and milk at 9 p.m. I bought nothing.
See also, 'French excursion' - 
September 24th., http://earnoldbennett.blogspot.co.uk/2012/09/friday-september-24th.html

Couldn't work next day or yesterday. Not sure why. Sometimes one is oppressed by a sense of pointlessness; why make another effort, or even exert oneself to be pleasant? Fortunately, with experience comes the knowledge that the feeling will pass and life will resume its normal optimistic course. In the meantime go through the motions.
So, I resumed "Seeing Life in Paris" this morning, and did 1,200 words.
Yesterday afternoon I just did a New Age article. 

By first post I received news that Pinker could sell serial use of "The Honeymoon" toMcClure's Magazine for £200. I cabled to accept, provided dramatic rights not jeopardised.

Additionally for September 2nd., see 'Death by drowning' - http://earnoldbennett.blogspot.co.uk/2012/09/death-by-drowning.html

"Received a letter from my mother today (dated August 30th.) informing me of the death by drowning of my sister Tertia's fiance, Willie Boulton."

Monday, 1 September 2014

Home?

Saturday, September 1st., Comarques.

Comarques, where I lived for some years, is a Queen Anne House , in pale red brick, delightfully situated in a large garden in the country in a quiet corner of Essex. 
I once wrote to Mrs Herzog, an American friend, that "we now possess an early Queen Anne house near the Essex coast and in February are going to install ourselves there definitely for everlasting; our deaths will one day cause a sensation in the village which we shall dominate, and the English villagers and gentry will wonder, as they stroll through the deserted house, why the madman had three bathrooms in a home so small; they will not know that it was due solely to a visit to the USA ..."
Regrettably, my talent as a clairvoyant was not nearly as great as my talent as a writer!


Comarques, Thorpe-le-Soken. The door at the rear of the house is covered by a moulded canopy
with an inscribed plaque reading ‘Enoch Arnold Bennett, Author lived here 1913 – 1921.

I took a month's holiday ending yesterday. We went to spend two days at the Schusters during it, and I saw the first batch of the American Army from the windows of the Yacht Club.

American soldiers in France 1918
During World War I, the first 14,000 U.S. infantry troops landed in France at the port of Saint Nazaire. The landing site had been kept secret because of the menace of German submarines, but by the time the Americans had lined up to take their first salute on French soil, an enthusiastic crowd had gathered to welcome them. However, the "Doughboys," as the British referred to the green American troops, were untrained, ill-equipped, and far from ready for the difficulties of fighting along the Western Front.

Health not very good during it, but a distinct benefit as regards the outlook on work actually in progress. I made some advance in watercolours, and more still in monotypes. 
One of my landscapes
I didn't read a lot. Hardy's "Pair of Blue Eyes", full of fine things and immensely sardonic. Last month I dined at Barrie's in London with Thomas Hardy and his wife. Hardy was very lively, talked like anything! He has all his faculties unimpaired. Quite modest and without the slightest pose. Later G.B. Shaw and the Wellses came and Hardy seemed to curl up from fatigue. He became quite silent. The spectacle of Wells and GBS talking firmly and strongly about the war, in their comparative youth, in front of this aged, fatigued and silent man - incomparably their superior as a creative artist - was very striking.

Also read Murray on Euripides - formless but gradually getting at something. 

Reminiscences of Tagore - good. 

"Duchesse de Langeais", quite a major work, which thoroughly held me.

La Duchesse de Langeais is an 1834 novel by French author Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850) and included in the Scènes de la vie parisienne section of his novel sequence La Comédie humaine. It is part of his 1839 trilogy Histoire des treize: Ferragus is the first part, Part Two is La Duchesse de Langeais and Part Three is The Girl with the Golden Eyes. It first appeared in 1834 under the title Ne touchez pas la hache (Don’t Touch the Axe) in the periodical L'Écho de la Jeune France.