ignis, glacies et pertinacia


In A Walter Mitty Character, Creative Writing Department, Reasons to be cheerful on May 18, 2010 at 3:07 pm

I have been reading J B Priestley’s wonderful Delight of late, a collection of short essays on those things in life which brought him, maybe in his youth, maybe in later life, delight. It’s a simple book, and, aptly, a delightful one which I would recommend to anyone.
I would like very much to one day learn something from the talent Priestley here shows for, to paraphrase Einstein, making everything as simple as possible, but no simpler. It is something I admire more than anything else in writing, in thought, in perhaps any form of creativity.
I came back from a spell living in Prague some five years ago unsure of what I would do with my life. I remember sitting in my brother’s flat compulsively writing notes into his computer. I had an idea. I would write a collection similar in intent, as I see now, to Priestley’s, which I had as yet neither read nor heard of, entitled Reasons to Be Cheerful.
Life had by that time become too complicated. Politics and philosophy had long before become habitual without the balance that ought to be provided by light relief, by comedy, the comforts of friendship, a hinterland. These things I strived for but often missed in the effort. Reasons to be Cheerful was to celebrate simplicity, and simple pleasures.
Somewhere, I’m sure I still have those notes that I typed out and e-mailed to myself. I would love to know what that unknown man wrote to himself and, unknowingly, to me. (I was listening, a simple pleasure, to In Our Time, a kind of Brains Trust for our time, while chipping away at my first green man with my new Swiss chisels the other day – these days I am nothing but hinterland – and the programme was on William Hazlitt, another man who hits that sweet spot described by Einstein; he once practised philosophy and felt that, since a man at one time in his life is not the same as the same man older, perhaps wiser, but different, since he is unknown to himself, self-interest is no more rational than altruism.) Perhaps the pleasures of this old self would be unrecognisable to me now. Perhaps not.
One, certainly, would be the same.
I read with interest one of Priestley’s pieces on the donnee as I will call it (a word thick with the moss of meaning for me).
“The coming of the [i]idea[i]. There is nothing piecemeal about its arrival. It comes as the ancient gods and goddesses must have manifested themselves to their more fortunate worshippers. (And indeed it comes from the same place.) At one moment it is there, taking full possession of the mind, which quivers in ecstatic surrender.”
For me this is so, but also not.
Something one moment is not there and the next is very much present. But in large part this is retrospective. Such initial impulses are many in my mind. These are the initial sparks, as if from a fire steel. The delight for me is when one takes, that spark falling right onto that thinnest, most receptive, of the peelings of dry white birch bark and, with an infinnitessimal pause which only piques the interest, buds into flame.
This maybe is not true. It may be as false a reconstruction of what happens so often in my mind as it is a Donne-ish forced metaphor. It may be that those initial impulses that come as Donnees, as “givens”, as if gifts from the gods and goddesses, are different from the very first moment they cease to be not there, and not only in infinnitesimal retrospect, that briefest moment before it ceases to be unselfconsious and begins, a humunculous, to be manhandled by the various midwives on offer. I can’t say with any certainty.
What is certain, though, is that the arrival of the idea does not stop with the moment of the donnee’s arrival. A true, glorious, moment of successful brainstorming, and delight, is in that first catching of the idea, yes, but then in the sixty seconds of distance run, the dodging of obstacles, the quick footwork, the changing of direction, and the jump to the floor that puts it down behind the line.
That, more than anything is when I am alive. That more than anything, is delight.

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