A night of broken sleep gives way to sleeplessness. Awake. No going back. Mind on the move, in turmoil. Uncertainty, emotion. Rest-less. Before dawn: twilight heavy grey, still. Alone with anxiety, unfixed. Alone although someone nearby breathes, sleeps: distant, unknowable. Conflicts and circlings, supposings and worries. Thoughts restless, tormenting.
Too much to lie still. Must move.
It is a morning on the cusp of June, sunrise still an hour or more away, hidden beyond grey cloud. All is grey. Shadows limiting vision, unpicking road, trees, footpath, even feet and hands. In daytime: all familiar, all taken for granted, all solid and reliable. In daylight the path is unseen: its existence is assumed from memory, from the way the daytime world works. At this time, liminal, neither of night or of day, the path hardly appears to exist. To walk is to move with caution, requires more than usual trust in the world being consistent and concrete. A trust tested at each step.
The footpath runs through an avenue of trees, tree limbs unpiecing the sky. Emotions cluster, mob: doubts, self-justifications, recriminations, memories retold and recast, futures unwritten and rewritten. Semidarkness. Shadows. Vision limited, unreliable. Sounds: rustlings, scrape of footfall, a branch snapping, trees restive, a faint breeze. Air cool, darkness rendering it grainy. A medium to travel through, the accepted made conscious: another thought in the welter of thought, in the careful placing of each step, balance equivocal because it comes as much from familiarity as from the inner ear. The opportunity to move freely, take for granted and assume, filter out: the reflexive, daily ignoring of all but a very little of immediate environment.
Immediate environment is monochrome: areas of shadow, near black, impenetrable and featureless, largely formless; mid-greys emerging, forms guessed, constructed from hint, memory, a few pale grey highlights. From pausing to squint, peer.
Restlessness gives way to concentration. One step. The next. Air, against forehead, ears, lips, tongue, throat. Exhale. Listening to branch, breeze, the stillness between each footfall. Silence: standing still, breath quiet, not the puff of emotion, body under tension, muscles made to relax, self made to listen. This silence is formed of the sounds of the river, nearby, beyond the trees; of the sounds of the trees, moving; no birds, although something moves, beyond the path, in the undergrowth part-glimpsed, part-assumed. Moves. Makes no further sound.
Trees overhang the path. Path curves. Patch of sky (mid-grey, featureless, no texture, only sky, only grey… gone in a few steps). Embankment to the right (trees, tall). Slope to the left, dropping away (trees, tall on the vergeside), river only a sound. Rising of hills from the opposite bank a memory, an inference (greys, near-blacks, densities, a darkness of its own). Yet: less dark, path wider, clearer to the senses. Going on, steps less cautious. Mind freer to wander. Turmoil distant. Not forgotten but less. No longer acute. Not… present.
Present is: cool air scent and touch, first bird waking, river’s purl and lap, muscles, breath, step, stride, feet against path, path against feet, weight of boots, rustle of clothing, gradual change in light, greys paler, shape and form becoming apparent. The path gains solidity, is no longer an assumption.
Later, sitting on a bench beside the path. Less night than day but not yet day. Grey-on-grey forms; a sense of depth and differentiation. A bat circles unseen: sound of wings, the impression of movement. A bird calls into the silence, to fall silent in turn. Silence: of the body, of the path, trees, long grass hissing, the bench answering to small and unconscious movements, river ceaseless. The almost day. Sitting.
Months later. This event comes to mind and with it the urge to make a story of it. A homily, maybe, about how emotions pass and are not concrete, not like the present, physical moment. A good life lesson. But what is here when the storytelling reflex is resisted? What can be gleaned from the impressions and memories of a small-hours walk?
Narrative realism — the default mode for writing in the Anglosphere — is based on a given: no psychological change, no story. Actually, ‘plot’ is a better term. ‘Plot’ is the direction of the flow of events propelling the reader from the start of a narrative piece (novel, article, documentary programme, feature film…) to its culmination. Plot implies resolution; maybe epiphany, maybe a happy ending, maybe an ending that leaves threads unresolved but nevertheless coincides with a change in the energy and flux of the narrative. Archetypally, a realist narrative will have characters who change during its course. They learn things about themselves, grow, overcome, become fuller. Implicit, even when the narrative remains open, is that life makes sense, or that sense can be made of it.
By our natures, we make stories. We live by stories. It’s how we are.
The beginning-middle-end cycle of narrative realism is ingrained in our culture but the materials such stories are cut from — the stuff of direct, bodily experience — rarely, maybe never, conform to such expectations. The circumstances that spurred this early morning walk weren’t resolved by the walk; no epiphany, only experience. The walk, from a narrative point of view, led nowhere. It simply was. Much of life simply is. Its sensations, like those of the walk, might be used a dozen different ways but they also remain: thus, just so, not the elements of a story at all. Without story, we find instead a sequence of impressions, a series of encounters with the environment in which the walk took place. And without story, the whole thing appears meaningless, an incident unworthy of being written down.
But at the time, even once emotions grew muted, the experience appeared anything other than unworthy. Is this apparent in the writing? Very probably not. Try not to narrativise, try to keep out character in the conventional (realist) sense, and what sediments out is a series of impressions, words and phrases that can only approximate the simultaneity of the lived, sensory body-mind experience. A closer approximation might come from taking a step away from the linguistic into the visual arts. Yet the experience of any moment is a confluence of body and environment, an interactive whole, complex, sometimes subtly so. Not matter the medium, to describe is to unpick and to unpick takes away the very ‘thusness’ of the experience.
What we write, what we read, the paintings we study, the movies we consume: none of them are better than approximations. The stories we base on such experiences, or the description of such experiences, are fabrications in the sense that they are neither recreations for the qualia of the moment-by-moment, nor are they any sort of direct substitute.
Our bodies experience in concert with environment and our body-minds (or, rather, body-mind-environments) can create stories to give direct, carnal experience meaning — to make a verity. We bring meaning to experience — this is who we are as incarnate beings, as beings not observing but intimately participating in our surroundings. In the world.
Narrative realism, with its ambition of ‘illuminating the human condition’, ultimately fails in its task because it confuses approximation with real experience. Realism comforts us: there are explanations, there is sense in things and events, there is a direction to life. In this way, realism is the most unrealistic literary genre, as JG Ballard once said.
That we search for meaning is not a flaw in us. The great 20th Century composer, Elisabeth Lutyens, was fond of saying that the truth should never get in the way of a good story. Lutyens, as raconteur, drew from her direct experience and her anecdotes and tales often conformed to some verity that spoke of a ‘truth’ beyond the mere facts of a day-to-day encounter. Stories can ‘lie’ and tell us verities in the same breath.
Stories drawn from other stories become a cerebral activity that’s attenuated from the world of experience. The novelist who draws most from the descriptions and events found in other novels; the poet who describes a painting only in terms of what’s visible on the canvas: neither is even approximating actual experience. To create stories in this way is to step away from the actual, moment-by-moment ‘thusness’ of being incarnate within an environment. It is to step back from the world and into fantasy. Should writers only write ‘what they know’? Hardly — that would be a different kind of handicap. The imagination feeds on the thusness of being a body-mind in the world. It’s not either-or, always both-and: a relationship and an interchange. As we need experience so we need story; as we understand the world through story, so we understand the story through experience. Verities come in many guises. As many as experience itself.