I was intrigued by one of the things you originally wrote as a form of introduction; it has stuck in my mind ever since and brought many images and reflections of past times to the fore during the last few weeks. You wrote:
I am someone who values time, therefore I will not take it for granted.
It struck me as being the sentiment of someone who has come to realise that whatever time is available to us is of the utmost importance, that we should not waste the time we have, it being limited, but make good use of it to the best of our abilities. This realisation of our mortality tends to come either to those who have precious little time left – either because they are approaching the end of their lives through natural aging, or through a course of events which has brought them to the precipice – or who are undertaking some great task which, they believe, must be completed by a set and certain deadline. Then, perhaps, there are those who come to realise that their time is limited through a course of events which does not involve death and destruction – either physical, financial or similar – but by sensing that their youth, the time in which they have the chance to achieve the most, is being robbed of them. Of course, there are few of us capable of creating something for posterity, so perhaps you, as I, have come to accept that life is for living, no matter our circumstances, and for gaining as much personally as is humanly possible. Some may call this self-centred, fulfilling only self-interest, but such an egocentric attitude can also be to the benefit of others, if our belief in gaining as much from life as is possible involves those other people. It could be family, friends, work colleagues or anyone else in the world. Or it could, just as easily, be someone you do not know or yourself; and there is no harm in living your life exclusively to your own benefit. Some say it is the best way to live, providing no one else comes to harm as a result.
I am not, however, as I have mentioned before, a preacher who goes around telling others how to live their lives, how to attain Nirvana, how to be a good person in the eyes of whichever supreme deity they – or I – happen to believe in. Time is, as you suggest, limited, and we must all find our own way to the inevitable, to arrive without regret.
The Soul selects her own Society –
Then – shuts the Door –
as Emily Dickinson wrote, but perhaps hinting more at solitude than anything else – the lines come from her poem Exclusion, which was probably written in about 1862 but first published in 1890 – a personal solitude of choice. In your case, this may also hint at a limiting of time, within the regime you must bow to each day, and also to the ability to freely do so many things which others, rightly or wrongly, take for granted. Of course, the limitations that you face do not stop you from dreaming, from making plans and, above all, from making contact with those who, eventually, might be able to advance your aspirations and make dreams reality.
From this point of view I was thinking more about Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and a few other writers, whose whole life seemed to have been one of adversity, and the taking advantage of this situation by writing exceptionally critical books against his government – in the Soviet Union – but, when he finally found freedom, if one may call it that, through exile in the United States, was no longer able to write anything of note. For some incarceration, pressure, deadlines and the nearing of the precipice whereby a work must be completed, an idea brought forth or anything of a challenging nature achieved, is the be all and end all of their existence. If it is no longer there, then they have nothing: nothing to fight against; nothing to push them into action and, of course, a completely different view on the value of time.
In my last letter I mentioned I have two things always with me wherever I go, the first one being a book. Having been distracted by the train of my thoughts while writing, something which happens all too frequently, I didn’t mention what the second thing is. It may well surprise you, because most people would guess a camera or a smart phone, which would both be correct – certainly the cell phone – but which I discount as being unnecessary clutter, but the second thing I always carry with me is a small notebook. Now, a cell phone is undoubtedly of great use, if you wish to remain constantly in contact with other people, or need to be available at a moment’s notice to make some great, world-moving decision. They are also good, or so I am told, for catching snapshots as we used to do with small cameras, and then uploading them to one or another social media service on the Internet for all to see and marvel over. I’m not sure that I wish my private life to be aired in such a manner, and I am certainly not one to publicise self-portraits – or selfies – of myself, with or without a duck face, the phone held at arm’s length and my face, strained, tilting upwards to capture some narcissistic moment in time. I can also not for the life of me imagine why anyone – no matter how important they may appear to be – should wish to be available twenty-four hours a day for all and sundry. We all know that the most important people do not have any need to be constantly available; they have people to do all the running and answering for them. In France, and not a moment too late, a new law has been passed which forbids employers from contacting their employees on business matters outside of normal working hours or, perhaps more accurately, allows employees to ignore a call when it comes from their boss. That this should need to be regulated by a government is something I will never understand as, for me, the matter is quite clear: we work during work hours, and only the most vital matters, of national importance perhaps, which really cannot wait a few hours, should be used as an excuse to disturb the leisure time of our workers.
Of what use, then, is a notebook? There are people out there, such as myself, who delight in making sketches of the life and times around them. Some do it quite literally as sketches, sitting themselves down in a marketplace, at a café or beside a road, and sketching whatever it is that they can see. Some are not limited to merely sketching, in pen and ink, charcoal or pencil, but have small boxes of watercolours with them, and artists notebooks, with heavy-duty watercolour paper. Here the notebooks can be anything from a small, postcard-sized folding affair, through the a full-blown sketchpad of much greater proportions. I am not, however, an artist of the visual, but of the mental. What I see and experience is channelled into words – or, at the very least, a series of notes which will bring the words to me later – and takes the form almost of a journal or diary which, however, does not replace the diary I have been writing since the early Eighties and has over forty small volumes to its credit. The difference here is between things that I wish to remember over a long period of time, over decades perhaps, and those events which I only need for a short period of time, which might make an appearance in a book, a short story, an article, talk or letter.
I find there are so many fascinating events occurring about us at all times, that merely committing them to memory does not do them justice, and also runs the risk of us forgetting them at some stage. You have probably come across this phenomenon yourself: an idea which is inspiring and which you truly wish to follow through on disappears, in a twinkling of the eye, thanks to a minor disturbance or distraction. We can’t all wander around with laptops and tablets tucked under our arms and make virtual notes on a word processor whenever something strikes us as being worthy of note, but we can jot down our thoughts on paper and hardly miss a stride in the process. And then, when peace and quiet finally returns, when I am no longer rushing from one place to another, or distracted by the inconvenience of other people, work or similar, comes the opportunity to take that small sketch out and relive it once more, decide whether it is worthy of further thought, of expansion, of passing on in a letter to another person who, perhaps, will gain insight or pleasure as a result.
The advantages of having a notebook – which I must here admit, I do not always use – came to me as I wrote the name Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn above. My thoughts were going along the lines of oppression and the inability to recreate feelings and reactions in other situations – such, as in his case, when he finally came to the United States – and I wanted to pull out a book of poems by an Englishman called Gould as reference. He wrote, at the time of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s exile, a short poem lauding his move from Soviet Russia to the relative freedom of America, and hoped that this change would bring more literary works with it. It did not, as it happens, but that is not the point. I was suddenly faced with the realisation that I know exactly who the author is, and which book, and roughly where it could be in my library, but not the quotation. Without the quotation, I am unable to write secure in the knowledge that I am correct – I could be misquoting or, to use a term which has gained in political relevance recently, presenting Alternative Facts – and I have a great preference for correct quotations and attributions wherever possible. You would, of course, be quite right in saying that I could easily have stood up from my desk, wandered over to the bookshelves, and sought out the book in question and, normally, I would have done just that. Except for the fact that I am unsure where this book is now, although I do know that I still have it, and searching through five rooms of books – some of which do not possess the order and tidiness one would expect in a public library – requires a considerable amount of time. A notebook, with the quote and source carefully recorded, would have saved me much frustration.
The German writer and critic Arno Schmidt had a perfect solution for such a time: he took all the relevant sources and quotes he found during a long literary life, and recorded them on index cards according to subject and content. Here we are, again, moving away from the automation of the modern world, and back into a time when things were considerably easier, even if they did appear to take up more time. I find the idea of a set of index cards, no matter how many hundreds or even thousands it may be – far more appealing than having a databank on some computer. Since neither one can be transported easily, it makes no difference as to the form, but the cards have an advantage over a computer, no matter how compact, simply for their ease of use and transport. A card can be written immediately, a notebook can be opened and is ready to receive information at once. A small computer, a smart phone, whatever technology has brought us as playthings today, takes time and, as we both agree: time is limited, time is valuable.
Why, some people might ask, do you need a notebook to record quotations and sources in this time and age: we have the Internet, where everything can be researched. This fallacy is one, I believe, which you can answer just as easily as I can: the Internet may well be there, but that doesn’t mean it is available to all of us all the time. In my case I would go considerably further, and claim that the Internet, in some cases, can be far more frustrating and considerably less effective than reaching for a book. Not everything that is in books, and we’re talking about thousands of years worth of wisdom, is online. And I doubt that it ever will be. Aside from which, is it not far more beneficial to read books, to hold a tangible, material entity in your hands? It certainly feels much better holding a book than it does squinting down at a small screen and correcting a spelling error in a search machine entry which has brought up ten thousand irrelevant answers to a query you didn’t want to make in the first place. I should add that the use of a notebook in preference to other means of remembering things, has a long and glorious history:
He would confide, as unto trusted friends,
His secrets to his notebooks; turn there still,
Not elsewhere, whether faring well or ill.
So that the old man’s whole life lay revealed
As on a votive tablet.
This wonderful verse was written by a man called Quintus Horatius Flaccus – better known today as Horace – an Italian writer who was born in Venosa about sixty-five years before Christ, was the son of a former slave and made it up into the higher ranks of Roman society, and refers to a man called Lucilius, another Italian, who had been born one hundred and eighty years before Christ. So I think it only fair that I be allowed to claim a system which has been used for over two thousand years, and that by some of the greatest literary minds known to man. Admittedly, I shall never come up to their standards, but emulating them at least in this one point has its good side: what worked then can work now and be just as effective.
Time had a completely different value for the servant Eros, who was owned by Marcus Tullius Cicero. Born one hundred and six years before Christ, Cicero was a high-ranking Roman lawyer, an orator and philosopher, well remembered today not just for the orations he gave in the Roman courts, but also for a wonderful selection of letters which have been preserved. The story goes that Cicero was due to give an oration of some importance, but was pressed for time to prepare and practice it. Then, as the deadline drew close, Eros came to him with the welcome news that the oration had been postponed, that Cicero had more time to prepare himself. Some men of fame and fortune – or, at the very least, despotic power – kill the messenger who brings them bad news. Eros, bringing Cicero news which he could only see as being good, and saving him a good deal of anguish not to mention the possibility of delivering an oration beneath his normal standards, was rewarded with his freedom.
I sometimes wonder what happened to Eros after being given his freedom by Cicero; I would imagine he continued working for him rather than just disappearing out into the Italian countryside and seeking his fortune there. He would have been a house slave, rather more educated than others in Cicero’s household but, as a Freedman, he could have demanded wages for his work, rather than simply the board and lodgings of a normal slave, as well as all the other perks and privileges of freedom. How he would have filled his time after being freed? We can easily imagine, from our own histories and our own feelings, but never know. Sometimes I find it strange that we can know so much about a particular period of time, about some of the people who lived and worked in this era, and nothing whatsoever about the people who made it all possible. Admittedly, few of them could read and write, those in service or slavery, but without them Roman society, as with our society today, would have collapsed completely. You just need to take a look at a small computer outage at one American airline, as happened recently, or a strike by workers on the Metro, to know what chaos can occur when the infrastructure we all take for granted, when the people we do not see or acknowledge, or even the computer systems which aid the smooth running of our world, are no longer there.
I can imagine Eros remaining in Cicero’s service because it would have been safer for him, would have been an area he was familiar with, a structure he had grown into and, perhaps, to accept. His time would have been properly regulated, as much as the work he would have been required to complete would have been set and understandable making it simpler to work through the day. How many people, I wonder, who have had a regular nine-to-five and then are forced into a new life – perhaps through sickness or old age – and cannot come to terms with it? How many long-term prisoners, as another example we can both appreciate, having spent much of their formative years, if not their entire adult lives, behind bars are capable, without help and counselling, of adapting to life on the outside? The routine is gone, the regulations are gone, they have to fend for themselves all of a sudden. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why time should be so valuable, in such an instance, why it should not be taken for granted: it is the only thing some have to prepare themselves for what is to come, be it freedom or whatever. One wasted chance can never be made good again, and there are few who have many chances one after another.
Although index cards are a wonderful solution when a writer – book, article or letter writer – needs to find something again, I have always preferred the slip of paper method. It is probably not quite as efficient, but if I can remember that something was written by a certain person, I can usually find that quote again through the many slips of paper marking various passages in my books. I think the most annotated – or marked with paper reminders – book I possess is Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust. It contains so many passages which just speak out to me, or which are beautifully designed and perfectly adapted to letter writing, that I tend to dip and browse through the three volumes whenever I have a moment, or whenever I think I could need a suitable quotation. He is, however, not a writer that I have used more than any other, despite the possibilities his writing offers, but the passages are marked and ready for the right moment, for a need which still must arise, for a thought which can be expressed succinctly only through the words of another. Perhaps Proust will be a good subject for a future letter, we shall see.