Hold It All

Month: April, 2011

Proust for Lubna

Dear Lubna,

After you telling me of your exuberant response to Cloud Atlas and it making you wish to write, I returned to these passages from Proust’s last volume, Time Regained.  How far did you get with him, by the way?


As for the inner book of unknown symbols… if I tried to read them no one could help me with any rules, for to read them was an act of creation in which no one can do our work for us or even collaborate with us.  How many for this reason turn aside from writing!  What tasks do men not take upon themselves in order to evade this task!  Every public event, be it the Dreyfus case, be it the war, furnishes the writer with a fresh excuse for not attempting to decipher this book:  he wants to insure the triumph of justice, he wants to restore the moral unity of the nation, he has no time to think of literature.  But these are mere excuses, the truth being that he has not or no longer has genius, that is to say instinct.  For instinct dictates our duty and the intellect supplies us with  pretexts for evading it. But excuses have no place in art and intentions count for nothing:  at every moment the artist has to listen to his instinct, and it is this that makes art the most real of all things, the most austere school of life, the true last judgment.


So that the essential, the only true book, though in the ordinary sense of the word it does not have to be ‘“invented” by a great writer — for it exists already in each one of us — has to be translated by him.  The function and the task of a writer are those of a translator.


The artist who gives up an hour of work for an hour of conversation with a friend knows that he is sacrificing a reality for something which does not exist (our friends being friends only  in the light of an agreeable folly which travels with us through life and to which we readily accommodate ourselves, but which at the bottom of our hearts we know to be no more reasonable than the delusion of the man who talks to the furniture because he believes that it is alive)…  


In reality every reader is, while he is reading, the reader of his own self.  The writer’s work is merely a kind of optical instrument which he offers to the reader to enable him to discern what, without this book, he would perhaps have never perceived in himself.  And the recognition by the reader in his own self of what the book says is the proof of its veracity, the contrary also being true, at least to a certain extent, for the difference between the two texts may sometimes be imputed less to the author than to the reader.  Besides, the book may be too learned, too obscure for a simple reader, and may therefore present to him a clouded glass through which he cannot read. …


But the truth, even more, is that life is perpetually weaving fresh threads which link  one individual and one event to another, and that these threads are crossed and recrossed, doubled and redoubled to thicken the web, so that between any slightest point of our past and all the others a rich network of memories gives us an almost infinite variety of communicating paths to choose from.



A work, even one that is directly autobiographical, is at the least put together out of several intercalated episodes in the life of the author — earlier  episodes which have inspired the work and later ones which resemble it just as much, the later loves being traced after the pattern of the earlier.   For to the woman whom we have loved most in our life we are not so faithful as we are to ourselves, and sooner or later we forget her in order — since this is one of the characteristics of that self — to be able to love again.


And then a new light, less dazzling, no doubt, than that other illumination which had made me perceive that the work of art was  the sole means of rediscovering Lost Time, shone suddenly within me.  And I understood that all these materials for a work of literature were simply my past life; I understood that they had come to me, in frivolous pleasures, in indolence, in tenderness, in unhappiness, and that I had stored them up without divining the purpose for which they were destined or even  their continued existence any more than a seed does when it forms within itself a reserve of all the nutritious substances from which it will feed a plant.


But I should have the courage to  reply to those who came to see me or tried to get me to visit them that I had, for necessary business which require immediate attention, an urgent, a supremely important appointment with myself.  And yet I was aware that, though there exists  but little connection between our veritable self and the other one, nevertheless, because they both are under the same name and share the same body, the abnegation which involves making a sacrifice of easier duties and even of pleasures appears to other people to be egotism.


I knew that my brain  was like a mountain landscape rich in minerals, wherein lay vast and varied ores of great price.  But should I have time to exploit them?  For two reasons I was the only person who could do this: with my death would disappear the one and only engineer who possessed the skill to extract these minerals and — more than that — the geological formation itself.


For although we know that the years pass, that youth gives way to old age, that fortunes and thrones crumble (even the most solid among them) and that fame is transitory, the manner in which — by means of a sort of snapshot — we take cognizance of this moving universe whirled along by Time, has the contrary effect of immobilizing it.

Lubna Alam

Lubna Alam


“Agent Orange Has Given Me a Death Sentence”

Through information provided by Virgina, who works with Veterans for Peace, I have been examining more closely the on-going effect of Agent Orange and came across this recent testimony from the Guardian.



During the Vietnam war, the US army sprayed 18 million gallons of the toxic chemical Agent Orange over Vietnam to destroy food sources and defoliate hiding places of the Viet Cong. Thirty years after the war, three million Vietnamese are still suffering from the effects of the poison, which can cause birth defects and cancer, has had a devastating impact on the environment and is now affecting a third generation of victims. Vietnamese victims have yet to receive any compensation. Dang Hong Nhut was 29 years old when she joined the resistance forces against the US army and was heavily exposed to Agent Orange. She works with The Vietnam Association for Victims of Agent Orange and The Vietnam Agent Orange Campaign to lobby for compensation for the victims.

I was born in 1936, in the Cho Gao district of Vietnam, close to the Mekong Delta. Life was very hard when I was a child. The French had colonised Vietnam and there was a resistance war, and a lot of fighting in our village. Read the rest of this entry »



[This book’s] style and method—the interplay of text and photos, the mixture of genres, modes, styles—do not tell a consecutive story, nor do they constitute a political essay. Since the main features of our present existence are dispossession, dispersion, and yet also a kind of power incommensurate with our stateless exile, I believe that essentially unconventional, hybrid, and fragmentary forms of expression should be used to represent us… [O]ur truest reality is expressed in the way we cross over from one place to another. We are migrants and perhaps hybrids in, but not of, any situation in which we find ourselves. This is the deepest continuity of our lives as a nation in exile and constantly on the move.

–Edward Said, After the Last Sky: Palestinian Lives (with photographer Jean Mohr) 


[Darwish] offers us a multivocal text that resembles a broken mirror, reassembled to present the viewer with vying possibilities of clarity and fracture.  On the page different kinds of writing converge:  the poem, both verse and prose; dialogue; Scripture; history; myth; myth in the guise of history; narrative fiction; literary criticism; and dream visions.  Each segment can stand on its own, yet each acquires a relational or a dialectical meaning, a history, that is contingent upon the context provided for it by all the other segments of the work.  … Suspended between wholeness and fracture, the text, like Palestine, is a crossroads of competing meanings.

–Translator Ibrahim Muhawi, on Mahmoud Darwish, Memory for Forgetfulness: August, Beirut, 1982


Instead of the loud, direct tone of other literary writings that denounce aggression and glorify resistance, Habiby manages to accomplish the same with wit, irony, sarcasm, ridicule, over-simplified candor, understatement, double meaning, paradoxes, puns, and play on words.

–Salma Khadra Jayyusi on Emile Habiby, The Secret Life of Saeed, the Ill-Fated Pessoptimist

Allons! (Walt Whitman Appreciation Night)

Some people open the Bible
and let their eye fall on a line
to bring consolation or insight
I turn to Leaves of Grass
To quicken pulse
To expand heart
To spark smiles…

The following is from Walt’s Song of the Open Road. I adapted these sections just a tad.


Allons! through struggles and wars!
The goal that was named cannot be countermanded.

Have the past struggles succeeded?
What has succeeded? yourself? your nation? Nature?
Now understand me well—it is provided in the essence of things that from any fruition of success, no matter what, shall come forth something to make a greater struggle necessary.

My call is the call of battle, I nourish active rebellion,
He going with me must go well arm’d,
She going with me goes often with spare diet, poverty, angry enemies, desertions.

Allons! the road is before us!
It is safe—I have tried it—my own feet have tried it well—be not detain’d!

Let the paper remain on the desk unwritten, and the book on the shelf unopen’d!
Let the tools remain in the workshop! let the money remain unearn’d!
Let the school stand! mind not the cry of the teacher!
Let the preacher preach in his pulpit! let the lawyer plead in the court, and the judge expound the law.

Camerado, Compañera, I give you my hand!
I give you my love more precious than money,
I give you myself before preaching or law;
Will you give me yourself? will you come travel with me?
Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?