Sunday, September 5, 2010

Simultaneity—can it be written?

Today I was watching one of my two cats—something I do often, as I find it both soothing and extremely instructive.
I've had my elder cat for nearly 19 years, and the younger one for five. In-between, there were two others who are no longer. 
When I was still living in London, my Aikido instructor once told me he had learned everything he knew not from his master but from his cats. I understood what he meant: if you want to know how to relax deeply while also being constantly alert, watch a cat. If you want to know how to look always elegant and purposeful even as you pick yourself up because you aimed wrong and fell off the highest shelf, watch a cat. To be a squeaky beggar for food who walks repeatedly all over her human hostess in the morning until she sleepily throws off the covers and follows you into the kitchen, where you then reserve the right to turn up your pretty snub nose at the impossibly plebeian food that's been put in front of you—well, you can only pull this off if you are a cat.
Cats naturally possess the ability of simultaneity—of being both nasty and wonderful, clumsy and elegant, dependent and independent, sweet, cuddly kittens and wild, dangerous hunters. They have made an art out of embodying these dualities we inferior humans are still struggling with after centuries of philosophizing about them—and the best we seem to have come up with, is to either pretend that they can be sliced apart with a knife like Siamese twins, or to acknowledge their co-existence in a Zen manner but without really dealing with them.

As I was watching my still very beautiful, almost kittenish at times yet geriatric cat, Billie (named after Miss Holiday), who is a half-Persian of blackish mantle and yellow-green eyes that scrutinize me harder than my bigoted Catholic spinster aunt used to do when I was young, a thought struck me: if only we could embody this simultaneity in our writing! And not just in the way of keeping these alleged opposites in tension in the written work; to problematize and show that they are not after all really opposed; but also to go a step further, to show all the facets, the different aspects of a person, all the moments of their life as if simultaneously happening...

As I watched Billie lay at the foot of my bed, fluffy and relaxed yet still alert enough to shoot me a seductive glance now and then with her half-closed eyes, I remembered her as that baby kitten who emerged out of her mother's belly, the first of a litter of five, and the only black one (the rest were all tabbies). I could also visualize her as a grown-up, slim and sleek, aloof, not very affectionate, very feline, very independent. And in the same glance, the same moment, I also saw Billie as she later became—a little chunkier, more furry, looking more and more like her disappeared mother, Cassandra, the love of my life whose loss still haunts me after 15 years. As she grew older, Billie became so much like her mother that today, when I look at pictures of my Cassandra and I then look at Billie in front of my eyes, the two cats are almost alike: only the fur color is slightly different (Cassandra was a smoke Persian, and her lovely dark grey color would take an almost burnt amber tinge in the sun). 
Is it possible that Billie has been pervaded by her mother's spirit to the point that not only has she assumed her features but also her character (as an elderly cat, she is now incredibly affectionate and demonstrative)? 
Or is it that she is capable to be simultaneously herself and her mother, but I only see her embodiment of the latter because of my own incapacity to view more than one thing at once?

This would be a good philosophical discussion if I knew anything at all about philosophy. But sadly I do  not; what I do know, is that for all the academic postmodern talk of the "breakage of boundaries", of the "interplay" of opposites, of "third spaces" and the like, we are still very much living in a culture that finds it difficult to deal with the non-linear , the fragmentary, the multiple.

Gentle Readers, do you remember that old Police song, "Synchronicity"? Maybe that's exactly what those once obscure lyrics were about, were after (but we did not care at the time, because the music was danceable and Sting was cute).

Wikipedia gives this definition of "musical simultaneity: "In music, a simultaneity is more than one complete musical texture occurring at the same time, rather than in succession."
Indeed, it is much easier to find simultaneity in music and almost any other art form than writing.  In painting, for example, I think of Marc Chagall's visualizations of village life in Russia, where he was able to blend Jewish and Russian sensibilities and folk stories with contemporary French painting styles, and depict simultaneous happenings in a village; or even more, I think of Chinese and Japanese scrolls where time flows horizontally rather than vertically, and events occurring at different historical moments can be depicted in the same frame (as in the "west" we used to do in the Middle Ages, before the constricting "invention" of Renaissance perspective).
But in writing? Can we really represent this without risking being labeled as "experimental" and relegated to the ranks of the unread?
It is difficult to use words in a way that will not be misinterpreted, because we are not accustomed to seeing words as abstractions, as mere sounds; we can only see them as either pointers to physical objects, or as elucidations of feelings that the words will help become more defined and "real". 
But is an epigraph on a tombstone really "real", or isn't it just a spur-of-the-moment opinion on a particular person, now dead—opinion which becomes, by the same nature of language, set in stone and immortalized?
I am no expert on Virginia Woolf and would probably be chastised by those who are, but it seems to me that she was after a notion of simultaneity when she experimented with language and interior monologue. And Michael Cunningham's The Hours (with its subsequent cinematic rendition) tried to capture that spirit.

The idea of simultaneity in writing seems to me all the more important for the genre of memoir, because of the way that memory itself works in our minds. 
I realize that these are very unformulated and rough thoughts and that I have no conclusion, hypothesis or formula for anything; but I have been wondering lately how I could possibly simulate a version of the simultaneity of memory in my memoir writing without alienating the reader by the use of some impossibly chaotic or experimental style...

Gentle Readers, if you have any thoughts about this, I would love to know.


  1. On simultaneity...can we express in writing that two, or more, things are simultaneously observed, or simultaneously "true" attributes of the same thing? A difficult question, and not one, in my opinion, at all adequately handled by postmodern philosophers, as you observed.

    So, some musings from me:

    Music is such a different form of expression from the written word. I don't think that, in writing, one can say A and not-A are true at the same time. In music, through different instrumentation, and in visual art, through layering in the same space, one can capture this nuance and show it at the same time. But with words...??

    Of course, there are those who have tried, like Woolf, as you mention. Because after all, in our lived experience of things, we can actually see and feel more than one thing at the same time.

    I am thinking of the poet Adrienne Rich who wrote about "wild patience." The justaposition of those two words, the simultaneous use of what appears like a contradiction, or an oxymoron, to express the layered complexity of an experience, may be what you are looking for in writing.

    I find that when I am searching to bring out such complexity--beyond good and evil, into the gray zone where we actually live, and into which memory, if we allow it, can take us--I use such phrases as "at the time" or "at least that's how it seemed then" and so on, to represent to the reader that there is more than one way to describe an event or a feeling. This may not be simultaneity per se, but it at least suggests that more was happening than the unconscious or conscious mind wanted to acknowledge.

    When Hegel wrote about the idea of "becoming" he was trying to represent something similar to simultaneity, I think: we see the acorn and it is always already the tree, and vice versa.

    It may be a question of choosing the right metaphors,, moving away from linearity, and simple notions of progress, toward something like a spiral or web that encourages exploring connections instead of separations.

    So, in our memory, we remember the child we were from the perspective of the adult we are now. And the act of remembering does more than merely bring something to mind of what was; it actually reconnects us to that moment. And if we are willing to put ourselves back into that time, we may just capture the complexity that was already there, and can now be recalled, in the acting of "looking backward."

    The question is, how to find, in language, a way to express that, to voice two chords, or more than two, about the same theme.

  2. "to voice two chords, or more than two, about the same theme" : beautifully said, Kathleen.
    What I've tried to do, in writing my memoir, has been to use the device of fragmentation and of shifting view points. I'm painfully aware that this may confuse some readers, though. Yet in order to remain true to ourselves, at some point one must sacrifice either voice or readership, it seems.