Books as Spiritual Elders: the First Breakthrough in Adolescence


[Second essay about the beginnings of reading books, now in adolescence. Sources of quotations within the text have been left out. The photo of the milkman is from bombed-out London in WW 2, one of my all time favourite photographs].

Books as Spiritual Elders: the Breakthrough to Mind and Politicisation

The companionship of books (…) frees me from the weight of a tedious idleness, and releases me at any moment from disagreeable company. It dulls the pangs of any grief that is not intense and overmastering. To distract myself from tiresome thoughts, I have only to resort to books; they easily draw my mind to themselves and away from other things. And yet they show no resentment when they see that I only turn to them through lack of those other more real, lively, and natural satisfactions; they always receive me with the same welcome.
– Michel de Montaigne, On Three Kinds of Relationships (1580)

Books too can be mentors, even providing a moment of initiation. R.D.Laing, writer, philosopher, and revolutionary psychiatrist, tells of this discovery in a small public library, while he was still an adolescent in the 1940s. He came upon Kierkegaard (…). This moment of initiation is also like a ritual of adoption. Kierkegaard – along with Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche – became one of Laing’s spiritual parents, a member of the family tree that nourished his acorn and fed his intellectual fantasy. You expect less from your natural parents, and they become easier to bear once you have discovered the other family tree on which the life of your soul depends.
– James Hillman 1996, The Soul’s Code , pp.164-165

In the early sixties, our TV-free, ultra-nuclear family regularly pays an evening visit to the local municipal library in still working-class Petersham. While father (no bookish person and exhausted from commuting and his store clerk work at Coca Cola bottlers in Crows Nest) prefers his Sydney Morning Herald, mother and son load up with books.

Unlike the pre-literate experience of being read to in childhood, adolescent reading has now of course become an individual, private, solitary pastime and experience. It is a form of growing independence from my parents. In this my small individual trajectory mirrors the larger historical one of the European mind and ego after the invention of the printing press: silent reading and solitary reflection help emancipate the individual by freeing him/her “from traditional ways of thinking, and from collective control of thinking, with individual readers now having private access to a multiplicity of other perspectives and forms of experience.” Silent private reading, the development of the novel genre, these are the prime forms of the development of western interiority and psychological differentiation. In the state of “absorbed isolation” that is reading, in the intimacy of the writer-reader relationship, we internalise another voice, another perspective on the world, another world, and thus become other ourselves.

Your earlier favoured illustrated boys’ books of Biggles and the William series have begun the imagination’s gradual extension out of the mental aridity of domesticity and fifties/sixties Australian suburbia into the cosy feel and ‘smell’ of a constructed twenties/thirties suburban middle class Britain. William’s controlled scruffiness and boyishly limited naughtiness (a British fusion of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, a kind of pre-pubescent suburban anarchism perhaps) annoying or avoiding pipe-smoking gardeners pushing wooden wheelbarrows and guarding fruit trees against marauding boys. The oh so English clipped box hedges and bay windows, the stiff-upper-lip whisky drinking gentlemen in wood-panelled studies and the corresponding safe absence (as in the more blatantly imperial Biggles series) of real women characters…

Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories soon add another layer of absorbing Englishness. (Some of all this at least perhaps percolating down to your later pipe-and-tweeds English intellectual ideal: the safe eccentric, the passively aggressive and/or tousle-haired, witty English academic in a cosy book-lined, oak-panelled study… A Sherlock puzzling over texts…).

Gerald Durrel’s lively reminiscences of his budding naturalist childhood on a Grecian isle are infectious: skinks on warm garden walls, butterflies over brown grass shimmering in the heat, adventures with goats…such early expansions of the imagination beyond the barrenness of our quarter acre block in Haberfield Road (close to the roaring highway that is Parramatta Road) may help lay the seeds of a late interest in ecology and gardening.

These boyish beginnings you now extend into the adult narrative of popular adventure, Gothic mystery, historical fiction: Alistair McLean’s The Guns of Navarrone, Daphne du Maurier or Alexis Tolstoy’s Peter the Great, the latter opening up an eighteenth century Russia, country of your paternal forefathers, your elders, the grandparents you never met. Can Tolstoy become a grandparent-of-the-book instead? (‘In this huge old occidental culture, our teaching elders are books. For many of us, books are our grandparents!’).

Indeed, given your father’s apparent lack of interest in passing on any of his own Russian heritage (the odd visit to the beautiful nocturnal Russian Orthodox Easter service in western Sydney, the uncomprehending listening in on his infrequent Russian conversations with some old Russian friends, listening for the two or three words I know – da, nyet, nichivo, harasho, sto…- fascinated by the language’s music and dark L sounds – these are the only slight exceptions), ‘imagining Russia’ becomes a strong interest. One of the first books you buy with your pocket money (at Angus & Robertson’s in Castlereagh Street: you can still see the exact shelf you originally found it on) is the pocket-size blue hardback Everyman edition of Leo Tolstoy’s Childhood, Boyhood, Youth. You still have it today.

Although I am not aware of it at the time, in this work, presented as an autobiography, Tolstoy completely fictionalises the memory of his mother who died before he was three. His wishes constructing reality, another reality of eye contact, warmth and nurturing that overlays, perhaps, a painful reality of loss sitting in little Leo like a splinter of sadness and creativity.

And am I not like Leo in some ways? Is this what I am doing? What we all do? What truth in memory? (Does not her general expression escape me?). Shylock Self-Detective. Is there any way around this? How to sandwich truth and reality? As a forensic collage of Tolstoy with a literary critic (italics) perhaps:

But Her General Expression Escapes Me. A Forensic Collage

When I try to recall my mother as she was at that time
The discerning reader with any knowledge of Tolstoy’s feelings and opinions
I …can only picture her brown eyes
And will, however, detect the fact that Nikolenka in the story is
Always expressing the same kindness and love,
to a large extent Tolstoy’s mouthpiece,
the mole on her neck just below the place where the short curls grew
though the occurrences in the story do not all resemble the events
her embroidered white collar and the delicate dry hand
of his own life
which so often caressed me.

He could not, for instance, remember his mother
Who died before he was three,

And I so often kissed
(and his own father in no way resembled the father who appears
in Childhood, Boyhood, Youth)
but her general expression escapes me.

Later you immerse yourself in the darkness and cold of the bleak tenements of a nineteenth century St Petersburg and Raskolnikov’s (so ‘Russian’?) somewhat masochistic soul wrenchings in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. (You simply read this as another, albeit somehow ‘darker’, more anguished, murder mystery; the possible psychoanalytic dimension of a moody loner and misfit with an unconscious oedipal wish to be punished killing a ‘bad’ old mother figure may be lying dormant in your consciousness as you read…).

For your fourth year high school German prize you choose Sholokhov’s Virgin Soil Upturned (you cover over the large hammer and sickle on the cover for Presentation Night: who knows how that nasty commie symbol could be taken in the middle of the Cold War…). You buy the Penguin Russian Course, puzzle out the Cyrillic alphabet and never get past chapter two. You are fifteen when you bury yourself in the devastation of Solzhenitsyn’s One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich: you cannot stop reading, you devour all 190 pages in one sitting, you emerge dazed and sombre from the Siberian gulag back into a somehow temporarily less real sunny Sydney suburb, and a confirmed anti-Stalinist for life…

You emerge a similarly dazed and sombre, confirmed anti-fascist from the experienced world of the concentration camp in Erich Maria Remarque’s remarkably little known novel Der Funke Leben (‘The Spark of Life’), one of the very few books you surprisingly find on your parents’ shelf and one of the first books you ever read in the original German. Soon after the both lyrical and (so ‘German’?) ‘darkly expressionist’ pain of Wolfgang Borchert’s Draussen vor der Tür (‘Before the Door’) and his, in contrast, almost haiku-like short stories of the material and psychological devastation that is the Stunde Null (‘Zero Hour’) of immediate post-war Germany in ruins leave deep impressions of your parents’ depressing realities around the time of your conception.

What psychic function can literature have for a young forming mind? Can they ‘inoculate’, for example? Have Solzhenitsyn, Remarque and Borchert (the Russian and the German perhaps speaking to your adolescence in its two genetic halves) subliminally politicised and humanistically immunised you against any form of totalitarianism, probably much more effectively than any overtly political or theoretical texts could ever have done?

The extremes of ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ will yet much concern you. Historically these terms were, for most, fatally polarised in their ‘communist’ and ‘fascist’ extremes as the Russian and the German twin totalitarianisms essentially defining both the ‘short’ (1914-1991) 20th century as the ‘Age of Extremes’ and your parents’ (and thus your) personal history. The two twentieth century wars between Russia and Germany and the Holocaust devastated European civilisation and facilitated the perhaps more rapid dominance of the present US Empire. The marriage of my parents, as of many others between citizens of historical national enemies, can be seen as unconscious expressions of humanity’s gradual movement towards the supersession of tribalisms as the necessary foundation for lasting world peace. I am privileged to be their offspring, to be deeply influenced by these two cultures (as well as English-Australian culture), but at the same time to feel neither really ‘Russian’ nor ‘German’ (nor ‘Australian’). Perhaps I am privileged to be able to internally integrate such old tribal shadows without great effort in an age of globalisation and emerging world culture in which this is happening on ever larger scales.

To have first ‘seen’ and vicariously felt these bleak twentieth century realities through literary experience, through the victims’ eyes of Solzhenitsyn’s Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, Remarque’s prisoner 509, or Borchert’s Beckmann, to have had the privilege of suffering-with, of com-passion, with them by the crafted grace of literary art – that kind of ‘moral inoculation’ against the ‘totalitarian temptation’ yet stand you in good stead. In your later politicisation within the German student movement, the ‘totalitarian temptation’ (Revel), the self-styled ‘avant-gardist’ elitism, is sometimes ‒ as, probably, in much historical radicalism ‒ an ‘occupational hazard’ as it were. But that is six or seven years away. For now the very first politicisation begins with the threat of a world’s ending.

And there one spring day you stand suddenly on the top floor at Fort Street Boys’ High on Taverner’s Hill looking out west over the rooftops of suburbia beyond your Haberfield home the din and smog arising from Parramatta Road and the horizon is filled with storm clouds and it is the Cuban Missile Crisis and for the first time you feel a vague fear occasioned by something larger than your private life and find yourself trying to imagine all that right there ending suddenly right there right there the end of all you are thirteen and the world has suddenly entered as potential catastrophe, as the fear of nuclear apocalypse…another waiting…another subliminal politicisation as the usually invisible public realm suddenly thrusts its shark teeth into the placid waters of your daily life…

But it is not all the imagined life ‘over there’ in Britain, Russia, Germany, that ‘other place’, that projection screen called ‘Europe’ that may still today, although to a much lesser extent, dominate the hearts and minds of so many budding young artists and intellectuals in Australia. This place, Australia, can also be projected upon, especially when the main character is another Prussian German and an existential seeker to boot. A herpes lip virus lays you low and you spend a whole day in bed in your cool dark room in Haberfield Road, leaving your throbbing pussy lip to its suffering as your mind traverses the hot and bleak inner Australian landscape with an intensely ‘existential’ 19th century German explorer hero (modelled on Ludwig Leichhardt) in Patrick White’s Voss.

Already the novel’s opening floors you, the, for you, ‘radical’ four beat ellipsis of the second sentence coming after the conventional direct speech of the first: “There is a man here, miss, asking for your uncle,” said Rose. And stood breathing.

It is almost as if the elliptic syntax of those last three simple words and their layered possibilities of anxiety, heat stress, a certain frozen monumentality… open a door to all of literary modernism…Just starting a sentence with a conjunction and omitting a personal pronoun… how simple, how effective, yet how new it was to you, a new way of seeing…

You discover that such hour-long immersions in new imaginative worlds tend to leave their mental traces for a while when you re-enter your domestic reality. There is a subtle sense of shift in perspective on that reality, a translucent over-layering, an increased ability to ‘read’ that reality on different, now somehow ‘heightened’ or deepened, levels. Somebody in real life could, for example, perhaps just ‘stand there breathing’ where you would not have perceived it in that way before reading Voss. You now become aware of a rich new world of subtleties of speech, body language, relationship, the moods of rooms and the forms of physical objects. Entering imaginative literary worlds seems to open new rooms, new spaces inside the soul. It is as if you were responding to the things the authors of the books you have read would have responded to had he or she been there with you; as if your mind, newly sensitised, were now “like a radar newly attuned to pick up certain objects floating through consciousness” so that, for example, “attention will be drawn to the shades of the sky, to the changeability of a face, to the hypocrisy of a friend or to a submerged sadness about a situation which we had previously not even known we could feel sad about”.

It is thus not only the content of these works that affects, it is even more the new way of seeing and feeling that often takes over as you read for longer periods and lingers on afterwards. Even your own speech and thought patterns sometimes seem temporarily affected as you unconsciously take over the rhythms, cadences, way-of-seeing of your literary masters, your new ethereal mentors that take the place of those missing from your real life.

As you absorbed and internalised the voices of your mother and father from the womb onwards, weaving your nascent identity on the loom of their sounds and meanings, so now, in reading. To give oneself over whole-heartedly to a book is to make another’s, an author’s, voice one’s own, to see the world from his or her perspective, to develop a new identity for the moment, and this has the entrancing, magic character of being under some wonderful kind of spell.

You are absorbing a new language, new patterns of thought and feeling that are beginning to take you away from those of your childhood. Your feet, your heart pick up the feint vibrations of some new kind of music, and slowly, awkwardly, falteringly, a new dance begins. Without at first noticing it, you are beginning to break away from home. Your little ship is starting to nudge against the walls of the cosy green bottle it is mounted inside. Imperceptibly at first, an old encasing is starting to crack.


~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on June 5, 2015.

One Response to “Books as Spiritual Elders: the First Breakthrough in Adolescence”

  1. “…a rich new world of subtleties…”
    “…entering imaginative literary worlds seems to open new rooms, new spaces inside the soul…”
    this is also the way i’m moved by all the arts…immersed in reading, listening, looking, learning and making art…
    i once read a passage by an author…she wrote how creativity, if not released, builds up in people like excrement…
    leading me to believe that, people who disregard the arts, in all her amazingly creative, innovative manifestations, are just full of shit…

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