It is a remarkable thing about the snore that it is almost impossible to hear oneself snoring. As a snorer myself (or so I am informed) I receive only tantalizing intimations of my affliction. This is how it works. I am asleep and am woken up by someone using the word ‘snore’. As I wake up I catch only the last fraction of my snore and am convinced in my half-sleep that what I was actually doing was merely sniffling or snuffling (any number of words with sniff or snuff in them) as I shifted in my sleep. I am furious as my waker has not waited long enough to see that this was not snoring, just snuffling. My waker has been Olympic-quick off the mark to snuff out the snuffle, too quick. Did my waker not see that this was a mere snuffle? What I am not understanding (apparently) is that I had in fact been snoring for ages but have been asleep and so unaware of the drone I was creating. The snuffle was, in fact, the full stop ot rather the three dots indicating ellipsis at the end of a long tedious paragraph of snore.
Can we take this phenomenon as a metaphor for life? When someone raises an issue with us about some particular aspect of our behaviour that they do not appreciate, we are often bemused by how such a tiny issue (brushing your teeth in the living room; putting vegetables and fruit cheek by jowel in the fruit bowl; grubby potatoes and pristine plum) could give rise to a complaint. What we do not see is that this is merely the final straw of a long liturgy of irritants tolerated in stoic silence, and that already, even as the issue is brought to our attention, it is too late to eradicate. Unbenownst to you, your snoring, or its equivalent, has been annoying the auditor for a life time already.
My mum used to burn the meat, or at least cook it to a cinder. She mostly cooked meat in the oven. That way it was out of harm’s way. You could not see the blood leak to the surface behind the oven door. It was probably a squeamishness concerning the dead animal on her part. She would put some modest pieces of steak in the oven and three hours later, at the end of a long Sunday afternoon, the steaks would emerge, half the original size, very dark now, almost incinerated. The steak was now like a small piece of furniture or a blackened knuckle duster. And very hard. My mum and dad swore till they were red in the face that the longer you cooked the meat the more it became tender. This seemed to me to be patently not the case but there was no arguing with them.
This misconception about the need to overcook meat to make it tender was one of those notions that defined them, probably my mum (my dad just went along). We all have a number of these that live within us and somehow plot our identity. There is no logic to them. We cite them automatically and cease to think about whether we believe them or not. There may be deep subterranean reasons for them (my mum’s fear of the dead beast) or they may just be random. I, for example, will not eat a vegetable starting with the letter ‘A’. Aubergine; asparagus; artichoke. People see me eating an avocado and look to catch me out. Always one step ahead, I insist on the telling nuance: the avocado, my friend, is a fruit. Oh yes, you have to get up pretty early in the morning to catch me with an ‘A’ vegetable on my plate.
Many years ago I gave a girlfriend a copy of a second-hand translation into French of David Copperfield. When she read it she said she liked it and cited the scene where as a boy David returns to the village where he had lived as a small child with his now dead mother and sleeps on her grave. I remember her saying she loved this moment. I knew that she had lost her own mother as a child and that her mother had in fact committed suicide, so I could see why. Forever after that I would always refer to the scene where David sleeps on his mother’s grave to other people as an example of a wonderful scene in what I think is my favourite Dickens novel. Recently, I thought I’d try and find the passage, but until now I have been unable to locate it. I have not reread the book from cover to cover but have tracked back and forth around the relevant area of the novel. Could it be that no such scene exists?
Reading and the recollection of reading bring forth all kind of fissures and fault lines, moments when our attention strayed and we lost the plot, misrememberings. There is the section in one of Stendhal’s texts – I think it is in his Italian voyages – where he recounts how it was when he was marching with Napolean’s army after the battle of Borodino, only to suddenly realize that what he was recalling was actually his memory of an engraving of this event he had on his wall. Our life slides over the things we read and write and remember and foggs them, replaces them, rewrites them. We know, of course, that this happens in life. Most arguments I have are to do with flawed memories of what was said when. Did I say we would go out on Wednesday after you said you said you had to stay in to do some work or before? And when the dispute subsides we trace back and try and remember how the misunderstanding arose. Mostly, we are investigating our memory and concentration lapses and those moments when the mind has got confused.
All readings are false readings. All understandings are misunderstandings.
We were walking towards the tube at ‘Chalk Farm’.There was a man at a bus stop screaming at a woman one inch from her face. As we crossed the road he hit her heavily and she fell to the ground. There were a couple of people sitting at the bus stop ignoring the scene. At the entrance to the tube there were five or six people watching. As we crossed the road I thought we have to intervene somehow. As I was walking across to the couple – they were still screaming at each other and the man was getting reading to thump her again – I was looking round at the people at the bus stop to see if there were any who might come with me to confront this big bloke. As I got closer to the scene and the abused woman noticed me bearing down, she suddenly rushed across and started hurling abuse and obscenities at us. In a word, our help was not required. We turned round and walked towards the tube. The woman continued to follow us and scream abuse. At any moment I was expecting a blow to the back of my head, from her or the man. Though it wasn’t the man; it was just her. It was a case of the abused protecting the abuser. The clan sticks together, no matter what. I heard the old term ‘family values’ again the other day. Families are often the site of abuse because they will often close ranks to protect their own. The victim will remain a victim rather than betray the inner culture. The suffocating circle produces drama in the shape of classical or neo-classical tragedy; there is no escape from the confines of the unities of time, space and action. You are bound to that place that is the family. You must defend it, its odours and its blood, though it reduces you. Greek tragedy works with this. They are dread family dramas set in the House of Atreus and other noble domesticies. Familial horns are locked in attrition. The great novel of this is Zola’s ‘La Terre’ (‘Earth’), where a man helps his lover escape an abusive and barbaric family. Whereupon, as retribution for wanting out, the family gang rapes her. Whereupon she sides with them against the outsider. If you utter the term ‘family values’ it tells us more about the sheltered life you’ve led. Family values depend on the family.