The principles of uncertainty

My friend Christopher gave me a quirky book for my birthday called The Principles of Uncertainty by Maira Kalman, which I adore. It even makes me laugh out loud, which I often don’t do and sometimes I don’t even know whether to laugh or cry because it’s full of paradoxes and pains and pleasures. Her illustrations – which are sweet in the word’s refined meaning and their thoughts – are like a box of liquorices allsorts (that I happen to hate) in their elucidation of Kalman’s alchemy of erudition, wit, nostalgia and pathos. Maira Kalman is Jewish and so am I. In shorthand, I could say her book conjures the bitter-sweet herbs, (though they are mostly bitter) of the Passover table that I haven’t sat at for years: And they made their lives bitter with hard service, in mortar and bricks, and in all kinds of work in the field; in all their work they made them serve with rigour. (Exodus 1:14) Sad, to think that I value that quote because it’s work that makes my life bearable: work, family and one or two friends that I love. Oh, I forgot nature. Although, just now I’m in a state of emotional mourning because I’ve seriously fallen out with Dan, (the grandson I was having the Dionysian debate with; he’s so arrogant and I’m so hurt that I can’t see a solution, at least not yet. Of course he would see it the other way around.) Freud got an awful lot wrong, amongst one or two genius insights, except I suspect that most of those were cribbed from the Greek myths, Coleridge and Hazlitt, and the eighteenth century anthropologists, but I go along with him when he says the two most important things in man’s life are work and love. I loved Kalman’s outrage at Freud’s hypocrisy, (who – by the way – in his forties told his wife that they must live together celibately, because he needed to sublimate his libido in order to have more creative energy) but as Kalman reminds us, he was probably having a marriage-long affair with his sister in law Minna. Roll over Freud. Illustrated right next to Freud is her tragic-comic evocation of ‘Sexy Wittgenstein’ who lived around the same Viennese corner and contradicted Freud when he declaimed, ‘Whereof we cannot speak we shall remain silent.’ After all, it’s just as important to understand silence as talk. I adored the page with an illustration of a donut trailer, which condensed everything that I think about my loved ones: Sometimes when I imagine my own death I believe I will be reunited with my loved ones. All floating around in a fluffy sky. I get a delicious cozy feeling. But then i remember that even my loved ones are sometimes very irritating and even infuriating so what is that about? And what would we DO all day together? (Except, it doesn’t look nearly so much fun in this font.) What provoked me to write this blog, when I thought I would never, ever, have anything else to say, were the pages on the choreographer Pina Bausch, who is illustrated as a small child being lifted high in the air by her father.  Kalman asks, ‘If Pina was lifted up in the air as a child did she laugh? Or did is seem dangerous? Very dangerous?’ These questions link up with the reason why Christopher knew that the book was my cup of tea. Not only am I full of uncertainty, at least when I dare to stop thinking that I know everything, but I have also signed up to my own post graduate course in Negative Capability, also recommended to us by John Keats in another famous brotherly letter, to learn not to strive after certainty and to study how to endure uncertainty without becoming irritable. (I’m feeling very irritable today, as more than two months have passed now, not knowing if Dan and I will find a way of resolving our angst. He’s capable of producing an illustrated page as witty and off the wall as Kalman and my birthday was the perfect opportunity. I wish he would treat me like Proust treated his Grandmother whom he seems to have loved more equivocally than his impinging mother! Don’t be deceived by all the talk about the famous maternal good night kiss.) It’s the illustration of Pina being lifted out of gravity and into a bird’s eye view that provokes memories and thoughts in me. The memory of taking our small daughter Tanya, Dan’s mother, to the South Bank and John lifting her up and securely dangling her over the Thames, and her excited terror. Terror too of fireworks; and more terror after I read her Peter Pan and she realized that some people could fly. It’s almost human nature to want to keep one’s children safe, to keep Lilith out of the nursery, to close the curtain on the night terrors. The story has been told, the curtains arranged, the door left ajar, as Nabokov describes in Speak, Memory, and the child feels as if  ‘Everything is as it should be nothing will ever change, nobody will ever die.’ That’s the biggest lie ever. I’ve noticed in my consulting room that some people never recover from it. In fact, how we approach the process of disillusion – and depending on how early we have to face it, or understand it – might become the crucial measure of our subsequent emotional health. When I think of the word proportionate I think of justice, Portia (also the name of our grand-daughter), the injustice of our balloting system, but more importantly it applies to emotional health, and the daily struggle to keep things in proportion. Kalman’s book helps me to do that. The Principles of Uncertainty: Maira Kalman, The Penguin Press, 2007.

Dan and me in France in happier times.

Dan and me in happier times

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