As I sat down to write today, late afternoon on another day which is going to be called the hottest of the year by those who have the time for such things, my thoughts were turned to a comment you made which formed, as it should, a question in my mind. I’m not one to leave questions unanswered, especially when they are ones which provoke and which almost force a person to take their whole self apart and reconsider where they stand, what they do, what they believe in. Fair enough, not all questions are so deep or provocative, but sometimes there is a simple comment made which does cause the brain to pause for a moment, to consider the wider implications, and to try formulating some sort of personal, unspoken reply. In this case it was your interesting statement:
I enjoy things that stimulate my mind
These modest words caused me to pause for a few seconds simply because it is unusual to see or find someone who is into mental, or intellectual, stimulation, and by that I mean across the board, not just in our circumstances. Mental stimulation, something which really taxes our brains and forces us to go inside and think for a change, is something more akin to times past, before everything was laid out for us, before society decided that children and young adults should never, ever be placed at any risk whatsoever, before the educational level of society was lowered to such an extent that simple things such as letter writing or even sentence structure raised the risk of brain embolism. I have to bear in mind here that you mentioned three forms of mental stimulation, two of which interested me more: music is a wonderful stimulant, in that we can both agree, but it is something which stimulates in a different way to reading and writing, your other two stimuli. Music has the wonderful skill – if you can call it that – of taking us away without any help from ourselves; it can transport us to a different world as we lie in our bed, as we jog through the countryside, as we drive down endless highways seeking our final physical destination. We don’t need to do anything: the right music works its way into us and transports us with the slightest ease; music can change moods and bring us up or into a beautiful quiet phase; music is, to all intents and purposes, a therapy against the trials and tribulations of everyday life.
And then there are reading and writing, stimulating activities where you have to be active, where you need to think and, often, challenge yourself to go a few steps further.
We must do away with all explanation, and description alone must take its place.
These words were written by Ludwig Wittgenstein in his Philosophical Investigations (published in 1958) and are as relevant today as they were then: anyone can explain so that a basic understanding of a system is gained, but few can describe in such a manner that we, many miles distant, can see. The brain, through description, is stimulated to a far greater extent than through an explanation. Unless, of course, we happen to know whatever is being explained better – or in a different way – and need to stimulate ourselves to correct, to better, to educate; but these are different matters entirely.
Stimulation through literary description is something I have been striving to achieve for years in my writing; mainly because I am well aware that whatever I can see, here in the middle of Europe, is not what my readers’ are experiencing somewhere on the other side of the globe. Every single thing that I see, that happens in my life, is exclusive to me: no one else can experience what I do, through my eyes, with my emotions, with my history. No one can experience in the same way as I do, any picture which I wish to create in writing. Likewise with reading: what I read on the page, and what I see in my mind’s eye created by those words, is not going to be the same as the author saw, nor as anyone else reading those words will experience them. Stimulation through reading means that my mind is taken over and I might be transported to a World War One battlefield, or to the desert planet Arrakis in Dune, a small country village with Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple in the Cotswolds in England and leave behind me the real world where my physical presence is. It is reminiscent of your music: you can be transported away to another time and place in a split second when the notes are right, when the soul-tune is there, when the entire feeling of the piece invades your innermost being.
The difference, of course, is that with reading and writing you are actively involved, whereas with music you may be transported away without any effort: one of the great beauties of the art form. With writing, the author – whether it be a letter, a thesis, a short story or even a multi-volume book – is active on many different levels: the creative process is a long and difficult road to follow, one which kills off many a minor name in its first stages and only allows those with real talent – and some who are just pig-headed and stubborn! – to get through.
I used to take objects on a table, like a tumbler or any kind of object and try to get the picture of it clear and separate in my mind and create a word relationship between the word and the things seen.
So Gertrude Stein, and Wittgenstein takes it further:
I should not like to spare other people the trouble of thinking. But, if possible, stimulate someone to thoughts of his own.
Which brings me, rather neatly, to the subject of letter writing – perhaps seemingly late in the day, over one thousand words already written and the second printed page turned – and the stimulation it provides, provokes. I appreciate you wrote:
I am interested in a true and good lady friend that I can converse with on an intellectual level
but I wrote nonetheless, having a firm belief that good conversation, intelligent discourse, the exchange of ideas, experiences and opinions knows no gender – nor age, religion, upbringing, race and any of the other epithets attached to our existence by society, or those who would pigeon-hole people into a small, constrictive place in falsified social structures – and that a written exchange could be mutually beneficial, if not mentally and intellectually stimulating. Our societies, our traditions, our upbringing – caused alone by the fate of birth and parentage – are different and allow many opportunities for discussion, for mutual learning and, hopefully, for the sort of mental and intellectual stimulation which any other form of relationship cannot hope to offer. Where the (Western) masses today rely on their small, hand-held devices to communicate, letter writers take time to consider and to communicate in a far deeper and meaningful manner, one which has been strong throughout the course of history, and will remain long after many of these powerful social media platforms currently populating the (cyber) airwaves have disappeared. Today I read on Twitter – as I am not completely removed from the virtual world – a woman who wrote that instead of letters, she has Tweets for her son, and it made me sad on many levels: imagine, in fifty years time when she is, perhaps, a great grandmother with a child on her knee, and someone asks what it was like ‘back then’, when she was young. What can she show, what does she have by way of memories? A shoebox filled with online status updates?
I have much the same feeling about digital books, although this is coupled with a feeling of relief that people are at least reading literature, if not collecting the best examples for their living room walls. Whilst I cannot bring myself to do it, seeing someone read a book on an electronic device is preferable to seeing them squinting down at a small screen and telling everyone about the bubbles in their cola, or the fact that they have nothing to write about at the moment, and are quite happy to tell the entire world – or their limited Followers / Friends world – that their minds as much as their lives are empty and meaningless.
I wrote recently in another letter that I sometimes feel myself to be an outsider: I settle myself down at a street café wherever I happen to be, order myself a coffee – without the intention of photographing it upon delivery – and, having taken in my surroundings, open a book to read. Or I take out my notebook and make notes on what I have seen, my impressions, thoughts and plans, and then open a book to read. People, I am told, do not do this today; they do not sit at street cafés, open books and just read. It is the sign of an outsider, an introvert, a social incompetent. Rather, people sit in small groups at street cafés, order their coffee, photograph it for Instagram, Facebook and suchlike, then sit huddled over the cell phones surfing the internet looking for things they can share with those friends sitting next to them, huddled over their cell phones. This is modern conversation. Reading a book is medieval, out-dated, the actions of a person not in tune with modern society. At which point I fully expect whoever is talking to me – and this is the gist of a conversation I had in Bremen earlier in the year – to turn their heads to one side and pretend to be a graphic depiction of a smile, just to show that no harm is intended, no matter how harsh the words may have been. A smiley, I am reliably informed, negates everything said or written and shows the true emotions behind words. Wittgenstein would have a field day.
At the same time, I am aware that I am an ‘outsider’ – and I have to put it in such a manner because I don’t believe it for one moment – through choice; I have no doubt whatsoever that you appreciate the difference between doing something voluntarily and being forced into a position where it is unavoidable. To be able to read and write, to have both the mental ability and the physical opportunity, is something which cannot be underestimated, cannot be played down as an old-fashioned, outsider type of thing to be laughed at and avoided. To be able to take ideas from written works – or from intelligent television and radio programmes – and formulate your own ideas, your own beliefs and opinions to gain a foothold in life on the basis of your own thoughts rather than the mass-produced, factory-cheese makes it worthwhile having a few teenagers, or their mothers, pointing fingers and making comments. I mention ‘or their mothers’ specifically thinking back to an incident a while ago: I was sitting on the terrace of a bar in Frankfurt am Main, reading an enthralling work on the life of the poet Robert Browning, when someone came up to me, paused for a moment, and then told me I’d never pick anyone up if I sat reading a book. Clearly I was either in the wrong part of town – although this was not in the area around the main railway station, which enjoys a certain notoriety – or the wrong bar. Needless to say, we did not enter into any form of conversation which, I suspect, disappointed the commenter considerably more than it did me.
Is it a bad thing to be an outsider? Aren’t there things which will always mark us as being different when we move from our comfort zones, from our home territories, and settle down elsewhere? At the same time, we are social animals and do try to fit in with those around us, but there is something to be gained, a certain pleasure, from being unusual in one small way or another, and being able to protect and enhance our personal identity as a result. And that’s what it comes down to in the end, I think:
There may be so many hidden causes underlying the apparent cause, so many submerged springs which, combined, lead to the persecution of a man, that it is impossible centuries later to disentangle the unavowed motives for the misery of the most famous, still less to identify why a particular individual, known only to his own group of intimates, should have suffered the ultimate ordeal.
Admittedly, times were different when Voltaire wrote those words, but they can be seen in the actions of many people today who, caught only in their thoughts of the moment, forget that whatever it is, is so unimportant across the entire span of existence, they’d be better off using their limited time on this beautiful planet to advance themselves with their fellow man, rather than harass, obstruct, belittle or kill for a belief held only by themselves and a few others, or interpreted to match the feelings of the moment rather than the original intentions of the creator.
Regardless: I offer conversation through the time-trusted and reliable means of the written word which, I hope, will prove intellectually stimulating, and enjoyable for us both should you so wish.