Existentialism as a philosophy coexists with the shadows of the world wars although its roots go far back. Existentialism was a brave effort to think through humankind’s predicament of the reason for their presence on earth. With the religious framework eroding and cynical despair predominant after the second world war Simone de Beauvoir’s novel ”All men are mortal” published in 1946, gave expression to this impasse and the mass scale carnage and destruction the world had descended to. Existentialism gave a bulwark  and which as an idea I have tended to see  as instituting its own anthropocentrism. Any intimation of mortality cannot be conceived without its concomitant opposite. Does the heightened awareness of morality come from the fear of death, or from the irreconcilability of mortality from the pabulums of the afterlife, self transcendence or reward that was a powerful strand in previous cultures ? Are definitive views on mortality and nothingness not risking the same absolutism they descry in belief systems ?


Fosca , the narrator of the novel, was born in Italy, Carmona in 1279. Choosing to embrace immortality Fosca partakes of a concoction to enable that . Fosca’s narrative traverses the centuries and is coterminous with major epochs in European history from the dark ages to the discovery of America, to colonialism, the French revolution upto the 20th century. Framing Fosca’s narration is a prologue and Epilogue where the action of the novel commences. Fosca’s imperturbability incites Regina , a selfish, narcissistic actress to seek him out , and seek to penetrate the self containment she intuits in Fosca. Upon learning of the gift/curse of immortality Fosca possesses Regina seeks to embalm herself for eternity through a passionate engagement with Fosca. The abyss between mortality and immortality is played out between Regina and Fosca. Fosca resists Regina’s overtures wearied by time, memory and history. Fosca’s fatalism about human progress is a byproduct of living through so many centuries and witnessing the incessant, inexorable yet repetitive rise and fall of civilizations , of the ceaseless human striving for freedom and self realization. Benumbed through temporal progression Fosca is bored and Regina seeks to draw him out of this shell whose origins are unknown to her.

Both Fosca and Regina are connoisseurs of solipsism. Fosca has found a safeguard in unrelieved  despair which disallows passionate embedding in the present. Whereas Regina, for whom centrality of self is paramount, cannot withstand any deviation from unwavering regard and validation from the mirror /other she falls in love with. The novel traces Regina’s gradual disenchantment as Fosca’s experiential density and unremitting resignation shatters her self image and takes her to the abyss of indifference and unknowability where nothing matters, death is incontrovertible and all endeavours are futile and foredoomed . This Fosca effect is as much the unbridgeable gap between a conception of immortality which Fosca chooses to live through and the immediacy and tormented awareness of finiteness Regina and other characters in the novel undergo in relation to Fosca and themselves . Omnipotence is the shadow of self transcendence just as a cognizance of true powerlessness can be a stimulus for power. Omnipotence can also materialize in the requirement that the self’s version of themselves, or experiential self definition or worldview must perforce be superimposed or self explanatory as to the true nature of phenomena and reality. And Regina and Fosca both demonstrate this .


But where mortal Regina seeks this movement beyond the self yet through a thoroughgoing enmeshing in her sense of self and vicariously through Fosca , immortal Fosca foreswears this very movement outside of the self by inhabiting an in between , neither here nor there landscape of dispossession and unbelonging, within and without. Regina is irrefutably Regina for herself but for Fosca both Regina and yet another woman, in a long line of relationships and entanglements through the centuries whether it was Caterina in 13th century Italy, or Beatrice , or Marianne de Sinclair in mid eighteenth, early nineteenth  century France. Passage through time has blunted Fosca, given him a macrocosmic perspective on the human condition , compounded by his accursed self chosen immortality. It is the unceasing protracting of a  lonesome self  in a world whose endless prolongation he is condemned to live through that inundates these melancholic ruminations. It gives Fosca prescience in witnessing and committing  himself  solicitously  to the machinations of power and subsequent surges of revolutionary fervour. Having tasted immortality Fosca is initially blinded by the prodigiousness of his gift. Seeking to mould the world in his image and bend a tumultuous and contradictory human consciousness to his adamantine will Fosca dehumanizes himself , condoning the sufferings unleashed, the shenanigans that confound his grand designs . In a way Fosca’s omnipotence is on a continuum with European history and the juxtaposition and ricocheting of these ebbs and flow allows Simone de Beauvoir to encompass a historical large scale bird’s eye view of human ”progress” which Fosca very much doubts . The sufferings of native americans and American Indians when their lands are brutally snatched away and their bodies exploited for physical labour are acknowledged in their unmitigated brutality. The human struggle is for immortal Fosca a nightmare which his embroiling in through the centuries can only bring about through an unembittered disillusionment, interspersed by momentous and sporadic energetic lashings of hope counteracted by a finality of despair that crystallizes through time. The shadow of the world wars is an accompaniment to the bleakness threaded through Fosca’s life history. Heroic feats are, in the larger scheme of things , redundant, all will dissolve into formlessness and undifferentiated chaos. This becomes the message Fosca imprints on himself through experience .

Such inescapable despair, a despair which, under a certain state of mind, even mortals can face, can be very tempting. It is a nihilism that can be convinced of its  veracity or as some subterranean truth underpinning all human effort. It can also be a tactic for survival or self preservation as it often is for  Jenny Diski’s characters or a will to power and manipulation of other fellow beings as Iris Murdoch’s godless priests and demon philosophers evince. This hopelessness of purposelessness , or purposefulness not transmuted holistically is an ineffaceable shadow in Simone de Beauvoir’s novel, a shadow whose forebodings and invitations to emptiness are circumvented through effortfulness and belief in metamorphosis , growth and evolution for the other characters who Fosca sojourns with on this odyssey. And feels profoundly deracinated from. Fosca swings between extremes , an oscillation his immortality allows for . Other women in Fosca’s life, be it like  Marianne , who  misperceives his fatalism as vulnerability or in the case of Beatrice, deal with from a position of proud disengagement and acceptance. However enviable the potentiality of immortality might putatively seem , however unassuaged the ephemerality of human existence, most of the characters in the novel are able to negotiate wisely , seeing the fleetingness for what it is. Some fear death, some fear being mere transitory appendages for Fosca, some see him as having use value for their various causes in science or revolution but none hanker unassailably for immortality, seeing the monstrosity its actualization has engendered in Fosca alongside veneration and awe for some other men who intersect with his life span through the centuries . Fosca’s narcissism alters through his narration, transmogrifying from a brute will to power and control to a desultory aimlessness where the will counts for nothing and enervating tedium of reiterated cycles of progress/regression become consolatory and unendurably painful. Immortality needs must dictate Fosca’s existentialism . Unlike an unfathomable god or creation whose ways are mysterious and outsurpass human comprehension Fosca is a mere mortal, albeit an immortal mortal .His immortality is in a very human world and cannot superimpose itself on an earthly paradise on his terms. This realization is what instils in him a valedictory remembrance of his early life before he opted for immortality. The human condition is , ipso facto, one of striving, trying to make sense of vastness and finding footholds and must be lived with , wherein mortality, however circumscribing of the possibility of  living out the future envisaged needn’t deter commitment. Fosca can honour this indeterminacy of the human actuality only fitfully because his own solitariness of power and immortality persists as an inextinguishable ache.


Christopher Bollas in his essays ”The structure of evil” and ”The fascist state of mind” examined the ways in which the fantasy of omniscience and self transcendence as both gruesome political reality and a state of mind, across the quadrangles of human history and as a state of mind each individual could tune in to, existed as a powerful underside to civilization. Self annihilation, under perverse states of mind, would involve a delusion of one such misconception of transcendence for a cause. The embargo of the self would be lifted off. Throughout history this belief of the self evident universality and applicability of one’s vision has both brought in positive and negative things into being.  Mortality cannot be disavowed but its fear can precipitate rash as well as heroic acts. In Simone de Beauvoir’s novel the disastrous assumption of ennui  carried too far is counterpointed , but complementarily, through the narcissism in extremis that is its doppelganger. Both are mirrors that reflect a skewed picture to each other yet bleed into each other. ”All men are mortal” is a disturbing book whose pertinence for the present is indisputable. Carrying the weight of history and human consciousness , and reckoning with a present that resists straitjacketing in any epistemological compartment the post post modern human being is not entirely unsusceptible to giving up. The accelerating technology, environment threat and conflicted international relations may lead to either a complete disbelief in any kind of hope , or a voluntary solipsism that chooses personal happiness or , if phrases like fake news, cognitive dissonance attest, a foreclosing of the multitudinousness  of reality through an overlay of sophisticated , reductive filters . Simone de Beauvoir’s ”All men are mortal” portends a cautionary warning of the dangers of these simmering risks in the face of an indecipherable reality, both corporeal and incorporeal. The novel ends with Regina letting loose the scream Fosca’s ghastly narration has prompted . It is the scream of knowing that the microclimate of solipsism she had so far inhabited is now inaccessible as well as the fear of Fosca’s totalistic picture/nightmare  of the human condition rubbing off on her incrementally and suspended in this primordial scream of imminent, perhaps immanent nothingness. A chilling tableaux .



Human consciousness inhabits a unique place in the universe. The provisionality of our presence in the midst of a reality that is immeasurable is counterpointed by the survival and manipulation of the environment humanity demonstrate. Speculations on ultimate reality seek an answer to ”why are we here?”. Oliver sacks in ”Hallucinations”, establishes both a continuum from his early work and examination of an area of human experience which goes very far back. Different cultures have perceived hallucinations differently and accorded to them myriads of associations and meanings. Some cultures , as evidenced by the salem witchcraft trials, have looked askance and sought retribution for an experience untranslatable into clear rationality. Neurology and its advances are an accompaniment to the technological developments of the 20th century. Modernity’s momentum ushered in science which has made formidable leaps . Yet human consciousness remains ineffable. It’s anomalies and aberrations may be partially comprehensible through neuroscience. Yet what constitutes experience, why hallucinations take the forms they do remains even now a complex and fascinating question. The patterns and forms of certain hallucinations in specific disorders, illnesses is given ample room for exploration.


Oliver sacks begins his book with the Charles Bonnet Syndrome, afflicting the degeneration of vision. The hallucinations in this syndrome, largely visual, are partly overcompensatory and partly precipitate responses to loss. Throughout this marvellous book Oliver sacks traces the trajectory of hallucinations interleaved with numerous cultural, neurological, psychological landscapes. The aural hallucinations produced by loss of hearing, hallucinations discernible in cases of patients suffering Parkinsons, the loss of phantom limbs, bereavement , epilepsy, on the threshold of sleep, drugs, schizophrenia. The brain’s ability to cope with reality and pain and suffering in both traumatic yet ingenious and affirmative ways has been a strand in most of Oliver sacks’ work.

I am fascinated by the candid account Sacks offers of his own experiment with drug usage . Whether it is amphetamines , or a sleeping medicine or LSD, Mescaline. The intense aural, visual hallucinations prompted by drugs are traced by Sacks through Coleridge, Aldous Huxley through the sixties. Drugs produced intensified alterations in consciousness in Sacks accounts, of producing in one instance a vivid hallucination of friends who weren’t there, or a florid but structured Austen like narrative running through his consciousness during convalescence. With inveterate self awareness Oliver sacks both ruefully looks back on these experiences and reveals a palpable curiosity about areas of consciousness induced by these experiences. Self observation and experiencing of this prodigality at kinaesthetic , somatoform levels have a simultaneity.

Oliver sacks has a redoubtable erudition which encompasses literature, philosophy and science. Hallucinations are both experientially inescapable in heightened states of being and offshoots of medications, drugs or physical trauma or accident. While respectful of amorphous areas of self and being Oliver sacks also , perhaps disingenuously though persuasively, uses neuroscience, neurology as a framework to encase these experiences. A compendium of case histories, some from previous books, are luminously explored here. There are patients who find ways to coexist equably with their hallucinations. There are some who even enjoy the efflorescence of the interior life these succession of images and sounds produce , some who cannot deflect them even learn to time them and be purposeful in subjecting the hallucinations to enhance a denser, richer interiority.


The variegations of hallucinations are explored in their specificity. If phantom limbs are predicated on memory which imprints a faithful blueprint of limb usage then the Charles Bonnet syndrome produces disconnected visual hallucinations which don’t always have a causal connective tissue. If certain auditory hallucinations manifest in inchoate hieroglyphic musical scores then others become conversations that veer from the unthreatening to the ominous. PTSD reactivates the traumatic experience while delirium may be the byproduct of a physiological anomaly. The spectrum of the various neurological, psychological issues produce their concomitant hallucinations, dependent on their contingent realities and the way patients subjectively negotiate these experiences. The unfailing warmth and empathy of Oliver sacks is as much in evidence here a in other books.

I would like to indulge in some of my own associations after reading this book. The nature of a hallucination- how far can its experiential actuality and tactility be traced back to lived experience? Does one’s consciousness or self, simply by being a part of a larger unfathomed reality invariably partake of its vastness even if the knowledge of this is often incommunicable ? Do the vivid images hallucinations evoke have some anchoring in the memory bank or the collective unconscious ? Can archetypes or patterns aid in formulating some continuity or intersection ? Are hallucinations visitations or incursions of some unformulable though intensely experienced vastness which upends the coordinates of the self ? How much can science incorporate these discrete experiences which historically some people have found profoundly life changing ?

Oliver sacks tackles some of these issues as have many thinkers/philosophers. I am disarmed by the manner in which explanations of these nebulous phenomena are explored by Sacks through neurology. Never pedantic or didactic and respectful of the unknowable Oliver sacks nonetheless encases hallucinations in explicable scientific paradigms. Science cannot be the final word and oliver sacks too thoughtful a writer to resort to crude simplifications.  Hallucinations can be misread or misapprehended , a pre existing linguistic or religious framework can embody a febrile experience in mystical terms. These misperceptions or configurations are studded through human history. And require their requisite examination. The fallible mistake of overestimating an experience that is fundamentally scientifically verifiable is a human one. But science may not necessarily transpose its paradigms to make these phenomenon self explanatory.  Alongside the dangers of a totalized scientific overlay is also a mystical obfuscation which may seek occlusion and indirection as a  smokescreen . Oliver sacks treads these tenuous alleyways judiciously although committed to understanding through neuroscience /neurology.

The wonders of science today are incalculable as also the wonders of human consciousness. The brain can be mapped, its points of amplification , exacerbation studied through scans and tests but why it produces hallucinations in their convoluted, at times explainable, elsewhere measureless wavelengths transcends human understanding beyond a point despite increasing knowledge of the aetiology in numerous instances . Hallucinations have  been seen from multiform lenses – either as the unconscious in its polysemousness, of the devil, or dissociation . Science, like other modes  such as philosophy or religion or psychoanalysis approaches hallucinations in its own terminology and field of reference. Technology and medications circumvent or partly ameliorate or contain the suffering engendered . But there are mechanisms within human beings that can, if allowed, experience these unbidden onslaughts of a reality which is ungraspable in ennobling ways . The mystery of certain states of mind or the portal into the unknown they betoken can be overstated, misconstrued,  or  inhabited as an existential bulwark or succumbed to by yielding self control or assiduously examined. The body is a microcosmic entity whose own workings or coping mechanisms can startle. Oliver  sacks’ ”Hallucinations” is a salutary contribution to a contentious aspect of human  experience which does dismantle many an illusory presupposition, dispel the morasses less scientific cultures often found inextricable or interred in mystifications but ultimately Sacks  concedes their glimmering possibilities and potentialities  while resituating them in the aegis of neurology whose pertinence and value cannot be gainsaid and whose postulations in quite many situations cannot be refuted unthinkingly.


Extrapolating further I also wish to ruminate on the 21st century where studies of brain and stimuli in the context of social media as well as modern physics provide instructive matters for cogitation. Will self’s modernist trilogy looked at this confluence of science, technology, pathology and consciousness powerfully. The acceleration of modernity has outstripped human ability to reconcile multiple contexts, technology creates its own microclimate. The imagistic , technicolour cornucopia is forming mnemonics of the brain and consciousness as much as elucidating them , at times through more straitjackets. Surreality and unreality are occupational hazards as also the atomization of consciousness . It will be interesting to see in time how hallucinations will fare because the tangled skein of incommensurable  polyvalent dimensions of space time in the present as well as recent political events consolidated a misgiving of even human reality outweighing any encapsulation that is coherent . The increasing mental health , neurological disturbances are another ramification and , as certain studies postulate, likely to worsen. Hallucinations in the 21st century will have as much to say about self and world, consciousness and being, being and becoming, science and the cosmos as ever. The stakes are high now but the ascertainable modalities of measurement and evaluation far more powerful. Oliver sacks leaves for me as a desideratum all these nagging, unanswerable questions after my perusal of his splendid book.


The first thing I noticed about ”The message to the planet” is that the characters are constantly sending, transmitting and passing on messages to each other. Facetious as this sounds it is not altogether trivial. For the febrility of consciousness these characters inhabit a message has the portentous weight of a summons , or a significant revelation . Another one of her baggy novels ”The message to the planet” concerns a deepening of the themes that concerned Iris Murdoch throughout her writing life.


Can a synthesizing force underpinning human consciousness be somehow revealed is the irresolvable predicament in the novel felt chiefly by Marcus Vallar, an erstwhile mathematician who exercises over the characters in the novel an irresistible and overwhelming influence. There is his acolyte Alfred Ludens who mistakenly believes Marcus possesses some metaphysical key to the anteriority of human thought. There is Gildas, a lapsed priest whose sobriety and realism about matters of faith and doubt provides intermittent incursions of some semblance of sanity and moderation . There is Jack, a painter who taught Marcus vallar painting and was outstripped by him and Patrick an irish poet, feckless and intense who is laid down with some psychosomatic illness that leads to encroaching inanition. Patrick believes himself cursed by Marcus Vallar and longs for absolution . Alfred luden’s painstaking search for Marcus leads to a ”putative ” miracle wherein Patrick comes back to wakeful consciousness after protracted languishment in purposeless stasis and enervation. This ”miracle” becomes a focus point in the novel for a rekindling of  Alfred Luden’s feverish obsession with Marcus Vallar, his desperate hope that Marcus would pen down on paper the metaphysical foundation of the fulcrum of intersecting diverse realms of thought and ideas. Alfred worships Marcus futilely, overestimates his skill and is , in his attempt to make Marcus a symbol, a Christ like modern equivalent of secular redemption , undergoes heightened feelings wherein unprocessed formative issues, misplacement of love onto Marcus’s daughter Irina and disenchantment become a rite of passage he has to undergo and strive to overcome.


Jewishness is a prominent substratum threaded throughout the novel. Marcus reads extensively around the holocaust and its history and literature and in his hypersensitive, overstimulated consciousness internalizes the idea of intense suffering as a pathway to redemption . Given that Marcus and Alfred Ludens have not lost their families in concentration camps and the ineradicable imprint of a jewish identity they cannot forswear, for all their erudition , they carry their jewish identities as both a yoke and an ineffaceable part of themselves. Alfred Ludens and Gildas often refer in the novel to the ordinariness and ubiquity of suffering, which is beyond that of the Holocaust while Marcus experiences the holocaust as a manifestation of an inward turbulence he cannot measure, except in disquieting interludes of uncharacteristic lucidity. Believing himself destined for greatness, aided and abetted by Alfred ludens , Marcus , when subsequently hospitalized in a mental institution at Bellmain, a private residence, becomes a sort of guru before whom people pay obeisance, deeming him to be some repository of a depth of wisdom , beguiled and misled by the concentrated intensification of stillness Marcus is able to exude . It is left undecided as to whether Marcus Vallar is a genius, a prophet, a has been intellectual celebrity whose early brilliance burned out, a prophet, a Christ like figure carrying mankind’s burdens upon his overwrought consciousness or mentally ill. There is an instability discernible in Marcus’s failures to form healthy human attachments, as also the suggestibility he demonstrates in submerging into states of consciousness and being that render him redoubtable , lend him a fixity and a patina of integrity other vulnerable characters believe to be spiritual.


Embedded in the novel is also the question of thought ,action , emotion, experience and temperate ness. Marcus Vallar is consumed by his thoughts, indeed conflagarated by them, as validated by his mysterious self annihilation. Whether he is awash in the inchoate unconscious whose mnemonics he experiences as visitations , or whether he has penetrated some insuperable barrier where human consciousness founders and quails before its insuperable immensity is also unclear. Although the former seems more likely the novel successfully, through a peregrination of Alfred luden’s quickening impressions and worship of Marcus leaves the latter as a tantalizing bait. Alfred ludens in misconstruing Marcus as a genius who must be bolstered and enjoined to actualize through a written record his nebulous metaphysical intimations is equally fascinating as a character. Fervent outpourings of tensile inner consciousness for Alfred is counterpointed by a realistic awareness of the limits of rationality and the dangers of unsifted irrationality. His impassioned colloquies with Marcus careen between buoying Marcus to endure the superhuman task of withstanding the unbridgeable frontiers of thought and practicable interjections to not romanticize suffering, not make a cult of the holocaust, acknowledge the unutterable horror of the holocaust and suffering by placing it in the larger framework of human suffering and man’s inhumanity to man.


As is customary with Iris Murdoch romantic love is a motif that runs through this novel too. Jack the painter strives to realize a menage a trois by capitalizing on the impassivity and unstinting love of his wife Franca. Alison, much younger to Jack, with whom he falls haplessly in love after many a casual liaison ruptures the precarious harmony of Franca’s mind. Franca , with her seemingly boundless love for Jack submits to the charade of a menage, relinquishing her will and awareness for Jack’s mythology of free love, truth and unconventionality. Unable to hinder the destructive inroads of hate and ambivalence, Franca seeks a foothold in a facsimile of orderliness and compliance while seething within. Alison, similarly ensnared by Jack, ultimately chooses to renounce him, finding herself incapable of shouldering the swamping of her self in some grand mythology of love and truth. Alison’s defection humbles Jack . Where Jack is promiscuous and Franca constant both undergo an experience of consciousness whose outward manifestation of hearkening to an unattainable ideal contrasts with pulsations of inner tempestuousness .And this irreconcilability between emotion and reason is demonstrated by many characters, including Alfred Ludens and Marcus Vallar.


Bellmain, the mental institution functions as a place of enchantment which reinstitutes clarity and acceptance of muddle. Managed by the psychiatrist Marzillian and Bland, both queer , the novel provides an intermediation of the scientific lens on Marcus’s struggle. Daniel Most, a rabbi, who seeks to temper Marcus’s self inflicted inundation of suffering which then slips out of control, tries to counteract with religious wisdom a measure of restraint.  Marcus is an enchanter , recalling other demon figures in Iris Murdoch, a graceless pathetic man who cannot embrace human contingency, a ”heroic ” figure, who suffers the polysemousness of the unconscious but yields to its darkness. Marcus becomes a sort of proxy figure for Alfred who seeks a vicarious breakthrough of human consciousness by making a mythology of Marcus. Yet indeterminacy is the undeniable reality Alfred has to accept . At Bellmain , embalmed as a guru, Marcus may be manically shored up by approbation and even his pliancy to intense inner intimations in the form of formidable stoicism of suffering be viable yet by exempting himself from the misshapen ness of human nature and all to willing too enter areas of experience with immoderate gusto, for all the unimaginable suffering it precipitates  expose a pathological strand striating his self conception. Marcus doesn’t understand himself and what he calls thought, or is exhorted to meditate on, is as much a compendium of glimmering hallucinatory apparitions as the darkness of the unconscious itself that is experienced as unretractable . Because there is no balance or an adherence to some notion of appraisal these cogitations on thought, refracted as amorphous human truths inexpressible in established discourse , as misinterpreted or misconceived by Alfred Ludens, the experience remains foredoomed to destruction and irresolution. Marcus is not a conduit for some apotheosis for Alfred , nor a supplementary father figure but a messed up human being contained by Alfred’s unfaltering, unwavering regard for a brief time before a reversion into the undifferentiated, fathomless web of mortality and human limitation. This same morass of unreflective experience leads Alfred ludens to love Marcus’s daughter Irina, constructing an edifice of happiness with her but miscalculating on Irina as herself. Marcus and Alfred may be said to feel too much or think too much or feel too much about thinking too much or think too much about what they would like to believe they feel. Marcus chooses self extinction. Alfred has to journey to experience, throwing off the mantle of self regard and naivety. Although it remains unknowable as to whether this has been negotiated the death of Marcus sets the process of disillusionment going.


The message ultimately is that of unfathomability and the tenuousness of any human endeavour to find a stronghold in inaccessible areas of experience outside of the remit of human thought and uncontainable and unobtainable. The language of philosophy and religion, the immersion in art of any kind , the straitjackets of science can only hint at ways in which human knowledge glimpses fitfully and rears back in horror from this void which is the vastness of the world, without and within. At best human structures find containable bulwarks from this largeness and ruminations of these realms, if uninformed by the reining in of reason, replicate the formlessness within as Marcus does. Emotions are energy giving, imbuing with meaningfulness for a self a profundity of experience such as falling in love is , or even hate , or masochism. The seductiveness of galvanizing emotions can be a simulacrum if they remain circumscribed within one’s own subjectivity . This whirligig of alternating forms unless hemmed in by some anchoring in reality or something perforce outside/beyond the self, can combust or involve a repudiation of reality than a plumbing of the recesses of something hitherto untapped. Which in a way is what happens to Marcus despite the paradox that it is this embroiling in the sea of darkness within that takes Marcus outside of himself, suffusing him with the power he exercises over others. He descends the underworld as it were , whose underside of awe inspiring terribleness is as invigorating as the outward calmness he fakes. But ultimately Marcus carries neither human darkness nor the vantage point of some epiphanic vista this tortuousness within may suggest to others in the novel. He is his own darkness and responsible for it as also victimized by it. It would be foolhardly to glamourize this subterranean embedment in the hinterland as authenticity. But it is as much a portal into a dimension of human darkness which science , astrology, religion can only scratch away at up to a point. At its best reason rightly promulgates balance or detachment and certain spiritual traditions self observation. But many of Iris Murdoch characters interpose and impose, partly wilfully, and partly propelled by something uncontrollable within themselves , a split between intellect and feeling. They expatiate on phenomenology, elucidate abstrusities, are given to dissembling their perturbations in esoteric language. Many of her characters, philosophers, priests , academics , lovers fail to really merit the experience they dissimulate with the scrim of recondite phraseologies and pronouncements because they remain ensconced inside their subjectivity and enmeshed in a phalanx of interconnections in the realm of love and ideas where reality, whatever it is, all that it is, is circumvented by these divagations than tunnelled into. Ethics, metaphysics become smokescreens or linguistic defense mechanisms or an adducement to false consciousness . I consider Iris Murdoch as a key post war writer as much for her accurate dramatisation of the consciousness and thought process permeating these atomized selves. Attention in Iris Murdoch is seeing beyond the self to penetrate the message that there is no secret, no transcendental key that would lead to a transmutation and transmigration of thought into some higher order unavailable to ordinary mortals. Such higher realms, rare though they are and often unnoticeable are palpable in human muddle and working through it, dwelling on the good, surviving the death of god or the snuffing out of the chimera of a harmonious divine order, attrition of safeguarding mechanisms of eschewal and disengagement, sloughing off of the layers of the extraneous and finding a way to affirm the human spirit. ”The message to the planet” is a long , rambling book, studded with beautiful prose and nuggets of dialectical interchanges. It is overlong , often exasperating but always interesting and instructive . Having disposed of the illusion of religion or god needn’t be a regression to primitivism or being disoriented by relativism only. Consciousness can expand but is never final, always a process and fruitful if rooted in reality and an acknowledgement of its mysteriousness and almost always beyond the self .


Innocence and experience are often demonstrable in Henry James and equally skilfully problematized. ”The Ambassadors” is a novel of the third jamesian phase and it blends in its prose both dramatic intensity and density of consciousness. Lambert Strether has come with the mission of extricating Mrs .Newsome’s son Chad from a putative misalliance. And what Strether undergoes in his sojourn in paris is an alteration of consciousness. The novel has been written about copiously in numerous academic studies . But what makes ”The Ambassadors” memorable for me is the interknotting of strands of consciousness, chiefly of Lambert Strether, strands that criss cross ,interweave, diverge, reconstitute , often surfacing to consciousness as an intensification of quickening impressions that are retroactively mulled over, processed and absorbed into experience.


Strether’s past is dwelt on fitfully, specifically the absence of his wife and son, early losses imprinted indelibly and reawakened in the pulsating landscape of Paris. These losses due to mortality, compounded by Strether’s own heightened feelings of the passage of time make Paris an interlude of reckoning, a coming to terms as well as a coming of age. The brimming and at times overflowing compendium of impressions Strether accumulates are alternately experiential and exegetical. His consciousness is not uninformed by nuance . Woollett, Massachusetts , is an inevitable accompaniment for Strether , both as temporal landscape as well as moral. The morality of Woollett, discreet yet consaguinary whose yoke of responsibility Strether carries, as much due to conditioning as also a self imposed burden is lightened after meeting Chad. Strether’s life , replete with unremarkable events though fundamentally decent involve lovingly attentive ministrations to Mrs. Newsome and the editing of a literary kind that is not very popular. As a cultured , mannered man Strether has lived a life of probity. Paris unspools a cornucopia of reflections, wistful as well as immersed in the immediate present , that becomes a metamorphosis, a quiet one although indubitably noticeable. The memorable examples being Strether purchasing a volume of books by Victor Hugo, standing rapt in a church and witnessing Madame de Vionnet genuflecting there and the teeming landscape of paris with its scents and sensations.


Strether’s indecision , which could be mistaken for vacillation, discernible in his refusal to commit himself to opining with certitude on Chad’s love interest Madame de Vionnet, is his moral strength. Despite guarded yet pointed missives from Mrs. Newsome Strether is beguiled by the transformation wrought in Chad , a transformation actualized by Madame  de Vionnet who has indented in Chad a becoming maturity Strether finds prepossessing. Madame de Vionnet herself embodies charm and grace combined with a sensuousness that counterpoints that of Chad’s sister Sarah, Sarah Pocock. The accoutrements of Madame  de Vionnet’s house evoke for Strether associations  that are regal, emblematic of history and a reality beyond the immediate conglomeration of oddments. Paris itself is traversed by Strether through inward changes whose outward manifestation is in his yielding to the succession of events that unravel than a predetermined certainty about his moral position. Strether embodies in a sense pure experience if one takes it to mean an absence of censorious judgements on the nature of the experience to be undergone alongside a moral fulcrum that though porous is also tenacious . The apparition of Woollett, encapsulated in the adamantine Mrs. Newsome cannot be expunged but his years of unstinting allegiance to her themselves undergo a modification of perception.

It would be simplistic though plausible to place Woollett and Paris as oppositional only because negotiating these temporal focal points, embedded in their specific dimensions of consciousness for Strether is also human experience. Sarah Pocock comes to paris to stall her brother’s precipitate decamping from the family bosom, an enterprise originally entrusted to Strether as well as to gauge the extent of change within Strether . Yet the change Strether navigates is of a refinement of consciousness which remains unperceived by Sarah Pocock while her husband Jim is entrapped by the social role he has chosen as a businessman in America. Jim’s enjoyment of Paris is coarse even though this coarseness reveals a candour and openness to moral ambivalence Sarah cannot relinquish. At the beginning of the novel Strether meets his old friend Waymarsh, repository of conscientiousness and good conduct. Unsusceptible initially to the ”corrupting” charms of Europe Waymarsh changes too by falling in love with Sarah Pocock while preserving the proprieties. Waymarsh can send off a pompous letter to Mrs. Newsome attesting to the miasma of moral ambiguity Strether seems to him to demonstrate in condoning Chad’s affair yet Waymarsh more than Strether is lost in the welter of human complexity his obdurate value system and taciturnity cannot withstand entirely successfully. His moral compass takes a toss Strether’s doesn’t even though Waymarsh, however compunctious he is, is anchored in preconceived frameworks of morality that Strether isn’t, or at least not as intransigently.

Madame de Vionnet is alternately voluptuous, worldly, charming, experienced and ingenuous. Beguiled by her worldliness Strether is equally disarmed by the novel’s end by the vulnerability that underpins this carapace of charm and maturity. As a woman in love Madame  De Vionnet cannot forestall the anxieties attendant upon loving Chad whom she sculpts in an image of grown upness and sensibility but whose sustainability cannot be assumed to be unvarying. Chad becomes a sort of finished product serving divergent ends. Madame de Vionnet  wants to protract her joy in this fashioned Chad while his family seek to benefit from this transformed Chad. Chad himself is beset with complex inwardness . He cannot forswear his formative upbringing even if he can view it impersonally and maturely through the prism of Paris. Sarah Pocock, watchful, gilded in her redoubtable self image as impeccable and moral is now seen anew by Strether in a light both somewhat tawdry and principled. As a reservoir of the morality of Woollett, though possessed of omnivorous and base emotions Sarah and by extension Mrs. Newsome become less than resplendent for Strether through this sojourn.

Mamie Pocock, Jim’s sister, represents American ingenuousness , with its maternal and girlish aspects conjoined that evoke for Strether a momentary ruefulness of nostalgia. Mamie is envisaged as a wife for Chad. Bilham, Chad’s friend, living a bohemian artistic life in Paris, is , as a fellow American, both innocent yet possessed of guile. Strether’s colloquies with Bilham lead to spontaneous exhortations of live, live all you can as well as protectiveness for Bilham. Maria Gostrey who meets Strether at London becomes a sort of conscience , with whom Strether can have intimate conversations. Maria Gostrey is principled, tactful and immensely fond of Strether although their deepening propinquity is left at a valedictory crossroads by Strether who, by the novel’s end, is set to return to he knows not what. Having imperilled his possibility of security as well as the estimation of his constancy by Mrs. Newsome he is in a limbo but enriched , tempered and enlivened by experience.  Strether is a receptacle for the expectations of the people who people the drama of the novel, a conduit through whom various conflicting needs and hopes are projected, superimposed or circumvented. Yet he is also the central consciousness, holding in symmetry the tangled skeins of these ricocheting interconnections while indivisibly developing fruitfully in himself.  Madame De Vionnet is enigmatic, with an acrimonious marriage that hasn’t yet led to separation, with a young marriageable daughter. Older than Chad as also carrying European echelons of heraldry, pomp and a historic past, like the Prince in ”The golden bowl” , she is artfully artless , calculating yet deeply human , mature yet needful, perhaps partly due to being a woman of and in her time.


Strether is the focus point of embodied consciousness in the novel. And his morality is in his adaptability to inner change and a capacious ability to process multitudinous realms of experience- both corporeal and impalpable. He makes a journey , ostensibly from innocence to experience but actually I see the journey as a recalibration and a homecoming both. The elasticity as well as surety of his moral compass allows him to enlarge the lineaments of being in a manner and at a depth other characters never achieve, whether American or Parisian . Amid human muddle with its debasements and entanglements and needs , which need rational reflection it is Strether who, as evidenced by the title, like a true ambassador will carry off the spoils of experience . An experience whose immensity, captured in this interim of lifting off of the burdens of a principled , reflective yet circumscribed life and consciousness , will be savoured and cogitated on in the dark days ahead. Maria Gostrey’s fidelity to Strether is a byproduct of her attunement and clairvoyance about the inescapability of this change however unsure its end result may be. If binaries of America/Europe, Innocence/experience, old/new are the originating tropes they are reassembled and become a mishmash of experiential tumult itself. Strether’s perambulations in Paris are often solitary and art and the sun become companions on this journey, furnishing quiescent moments of simultaneous experiencing and reflectiveness . Strether delays Chad’s departure by acceding to Chad’s proclamation of transmogrification . The receptivity of Strether to this change is as much his own ineffaceable timorousness and unanticipated incursions of past regrets rematerializing unbidden. Travel changes him or more accurately involves a coexistence with the nascent layers of complex being that find breathing room to elongate and develop in Paris even if it would involve solitude and impoverishment as possible risks.


”The Ambassadors” is a polychromatic novel which faithfully captures the divagations, circumlocutions, hesitancies and irresolutions of Strether’s evolving consciousness. In his mid fifties now, with incipient old age Strether finds a lifeline in this journey to Paris. Although informed and altered by the irremovable impress of experience, including that of other people’s on him, Strether though evolved by the end is still unalterably himself, albeit richer and denser in being. This is not realizable for other characters – Chad’s possibility of treachery , despite being changed by Paris, persists as an adjunct for Madame de Vionnet, the misconceived unimpeachability of Sarah Pocock is equally likely to continue, Madame de Vionnet can calibrate and manage to hold on to Chad only ineffectually, despite the depth of the change she has ushered in, Waymarsh is no less entrapped by intimations of the unpredictability of the human heart and no stalwart presupposition of morality can possibly make him grow except entrench his rigidities. Almost all these characters stray from their moral jurisdictions even while adhering to solipsistic self conceptualizations . And it is creditable to Henry James’s worldliness that these characters are invulnerable in their vulnerabilities, sure of surviving in their respective climates and topographies. It is Strether, polyglot, citizen of nowhere who faces an abyss of the future, an abyss that he has been led up to authentically and with the requisite curiosity, self analysis and resoluteness in the face of the unknown as can be mustered . ”The Ambassadors” is unfailingly spot on in its divination of human darkness and incompatibilities . But in its gentle, subtle and thoughtful peregrination of  the irretrievability of experience and the ineradicable lonesomeness of the human heart , specially with a self and being of integrity as Strether is, is an invaluable contribution to the imperative of living , processing and moving on, with all the risk that would entail.


The biggest takeaway I got from A.S Byatt’s magnificent culmination of the Frederica Potter quartet was the necessity for engagement and the foolhardiness of unconsidered , unreflective judgements on phenomena without attentive examination . Á whistling woman” is a novel of interconnections – Frederica’s job at television, including the meta commentary on the ill effects of television, the discussion on art, creativity , freud and feminism is on a grid with the tussle between the university in Yorkshire and its oppositional anti university as also the religious community of self denial and self mortification founded by Joshua Ramsden/Josh Lamb in the nearby area.

Art, psychoanalysis, mysticism, occult, neuroscience, burgeoning computer technology are woven into the tapestry of the counterculture, specially from 1968 to 1969 at the university in Yorkshire where Frederica potter’s love interest John Ottokar, goes to take a post, symbiotically cleaved to his sibling Paul Zag, who embodies the buoyancy of unprocessed spiritual optimism and revolt. Josh Lamb/Joshua Ramsden , the founder of the Manichean group is incarcerated prior to the founding of his group in mental institutions where his alternation between uncanny wisdom and encoded ,inchoate mnemonics of a fraught inwardness which catches the eye and attention of Elvet Gander, during and through his epistolary interchanges with Kieran Quarrell. Elvet Gander is a quasi laingian psychoanalyst who takes LSD and subsequently joins the Manichean group spearheaded by Josh Lamb as a disguised acolyte.


A.S Byatt enters into Josh Lamb’s interiority with painstaking detail. Traumatized by a brutal trauma in childhood where his father’s religious fanaticism leads to the death of his mother and sister , Josh Lamb/Joshua Ramsden retains the imprint of this experience. His grounding in scripture and division of good and evil with the quest for good calling forth self abnegation and rigorous negation of fleshly temptations is an accompaniment to epileptic fits swamping in unconstrained emotion engenders and unbidden and blood spattered visions of unrecollected childhood trauma captured fitfully. Joshua sees with a heightened perspective and this heightened lens beclouds and occludes clarity, intensifying the selectivity of his partisan metaphysical position and instilling in him a redoubtability and conviction that makes him an ideal candidate for a sort of guru or leader. The entourage of acolytes who debase , obsequy and pay homage to Joshua are Lady Wijnnobel, wife of the university’s vice chancellor , Paul , John ottokar’s twin, Elvet Gander and Brenda Pincher, an ethnomethodologist dissimulating her identity to study group dynamics of this cult. Elvet Gander , in thrall of discrete ideas culled from jung, mysticism, and enraptured by the infectiousness of the counterculture , reads into Joshua’s outpourings interspersed with scriptural vocabulary nuggets of true wisdom and accessibility to hitherto untraversed areas of experience. Brenda Pincher’s hold on sanity , though never entirely relinquished, undergoes incremental modifications as she witnesses the cult’s disintegration into increased isolation and unreason.

Abutting this plot strand, temporally and  thematically are the shenanigans of the anti university, an unconstituted group of people, students protesting a hackneyed and threadbare academic system they don’t seem to have examined in depth. Peregrinating diverse disciplines from occultism to eastern religious tradition, imbued with the heady gaiety of the sixties these protesters plan a revolution where the fervour of overturning an overthrowing authority supersedes an analysis of the lineaments of exactly what it is they seek to challenge. Spearheaded by Jonty Surtees whose machinations of protest run deep and Nick Tewfell, member of a student board who is enmeshed in the vortex of a protest whose gravity he miscalculates the anti university storms into the mind body conference, raucously, noisily, smashing up things, protesting chiefly the paper presentation by Eichenbaum, who retained his position at  university during Nazi Germany’s unconscionable extermination of jews  and wrote an ill advised paper in german on group behaviour and refining the evolutionary model of a human being. Eichenbaum whose work in the study of animal behaviour is pertinent as also his authentic remorsefulness for  his past record , is no platformed . The humane narrative underpinning his complex past is repudiated in the fervour of the protests. A.S Byatt raises here a topical concern about the necessity of free speech, a principle the students and protesters cannily adumbrate to rationalize themselves while denying to those they disagree with, leavened with moral outrage and an absence of immersion in what they protest.


Concentrically entangled with this are the other mind body conference participants. Jacqueline Winwar, unable to reconcile the dichotomy of femininity and career . Overinvested in science, assiduous and indefatigable Jacqueline rebuffs and eventually succumbs to the patient charm of Luk Lysgaard peacock, a fellow scientist. Jacqueline’s unforeseen pregnancy and precipitate miscarriage prompt a choice, a reversion to the scientific career at the cost of love and marriage. Luk, who works chiefly with snails and birds , has a roiling life of the mind wherein images of bird bowers, and chiefly peacocks are engraved as flickering, oscillating visual patterns, even in the processes of lovemaking. Vincent Hodgkiss , dean of students , is another character, a repressed gay man, who after a long life choice of renunciation finds love unexpectedly with Marcus potter, Frederica potter’s brother. Frederica potter’s discussion of Free women from Doris lessing’s ”The golden notebook” is a plot strand interconnected to Jacqueline’s own embedment and irreconcilability of the professional and personal and amalgamated to Frederica potter’s own uncertainties about her future.


Frederica Potter is a peripheral yet central  presence in the novel . She is still working out the art/life disparity, endeavouring to reach an equilibrium in her life after a disastrous marriage and an inconclusive relationship with John Ottokar whose descent into unreasonableness and sibling ambivalence further imperils any chance of happiness. Compounding this is her son Leo’s dyslexia which is resolved through the interventions of her father Bill Potter. The novel ends with Frederica and Luk contemplating a putative relationship. ”A whistling woman” ties up the loose ends of the previous three novels . It does so but by acknowledging the consolatory foreclosing of a work of art whose density of interrelations both undermines and irradiates the wholesome unity the quartet ends with.  Prefiguring this ending is  the enactment by Alexander Wedderburn ( who began ”The virgin in the garden” with his play about/on queen Elizabeth 1) ”The winter’s tale” by Shakespeare which for Byatt is a willed and cognizant interim of comedy into tragedy underscoring a conscious acknowledgement of the consolation of art in the full knowledge of the absurdity and beauty of this incomplete completeness.


It is impossible to do justice to the craftsmanship of ”A whistling woman” or the entire Frederica potter quartet. My retrospective rereading demonstrates interlinked motifs I had missed out on earlier. A.S Byatt deploys a monumental tapestry which cuts through multitudinous disciplines and art. What I find fascinating in Byatt’s novel is the fascinating commonality or tipping point various approaches to mediate reality lead to. Whether it is psychoanalysis or neuroscience or occultism or astrology or religion there seems to be an ineffableness, a mystery, they ineluctably point towards and simultaneously disavow, promulgating the minutiae of their approach as self evidently explanatory. Elvet Gander , the quasi R.D Laing can conglomerate jung, mandala symbolism, freud , metaphysics but because his inhabitation of these myriad realms is uninformed by an actual balance he is lost in their glimmering tantalizing forms. Lady Wijnnobel can expatiate on the abstrusities of astrology and the amorphousness of this looked down upon complex system yet her personal life and mind are in disarray as betokened by her colluding in the student’s protests and unwillingness to concede the validity and integrity of her husband Gerard Wijnnobel, the vice chancellor. Jacqueline Winwar in her recondite study of the alterations of the memory patterns of snails works herself to the bone but with the substratum of incipient neurosis , uncoupled from her physical yearnings which she had studiously circumvented and then waylaid by them when they make unsought incursions. Gerard Wijnnobel, an ennobling man and genuinely supportive of free speech is upended and capsized by the virulent planning of the student protesters . John Ottokar flees his sibling ineffectually, seeking refuge in science, only to find himself irretrievably cleaved in a folie a deux which lands him up in a psychiatric ward. Joshua Ramsden follows a private methodology of exegesis in his thought processes , irreparably damaged by trauma and whose cosmogony of good and evil requiring self flagellation and disembodiment is literally schizoid, duplicating the Manicheanism it seeks to work through. Spurning physical propinquity , Joshua simulates and emblematizes an illusory self containment, a certainty which his rootless, disaffected and confused followers are irresistibly drawn to. The result is conflagaration . Frederica’s nephew Paul is rescued at the last minute by Daniel Orton, his father with whom he has a tempestuous relationship after  his mother Stephanie’s death , from becoming ensnared by this cult. Brenda Pincher writes detailed analyses of the group to an interlocutor whose absence of reciprocity both balks her and provides a foothold of sanity in the midst of this self destructing religious cult. Group behaviour is penetrated and penetratingly dissected, both as complex interrelationships with their attendant antipathies and points of convergence and the throbbing tensions of the unstated and suppressed that burst out unanticipated.


A.S Byatt takes a sceptical position on revolutions and the counterculture. The reader may find in her explication in fictional form of the irrepressible gaiety of destabilizing authorities by  the student’s protest and counterculture  of  structures that were unquestioned or unquestionable a censoriousness and firm handling that brooks no meretricious half baked understanding. And it is certainly discernible that in Byatt’s novel there is an unseemly excitement palpable in these students . But the criticism of the student protesters is not predicated on obeisance to tradition or unthinking eulogy of high art or art. Nor is high art seen as a repository of  human grandness . An inquisitive , searching interrogation of what art, literature and writers/poets/artists /thinkers  represent is an overarching framework in this book and the larger quartet.  However her larger point, which Frederica’s own insatiable and boundless curiosity to know, find out and discover unplumbed areas of knowledge and experience is sagacious and salutary. Frederica may be, throughout the quartet, working out irresolvable, indefinable and possibly unknowable truths . Yet her quest is honourable. Byatt as the omniscient narrator reinforces this integrity. Byatt’s esoteric knowledge is inspiring as also her multifaceted concerns. Language and ideas in this quartet are channelled in the service of precision and exactitude. Each literary, disciplinary reference is a rite of passage, each aspect of compendious research blended to the plot to authenticate, complexify and flesh out Byatt’s fundamental premise, the capturing of experience and the nature of the times, from 1953-1970.  Frederica makes her own epistemological odyssey in this quartet. Structures, science, techniques of capturing the flux of life are a dimension of human thought whose vigour, industriousness and ingenuity Byatt acknowledges but by resituating them in their provisional, often makeshift paradigmatic crystallization into sub structures that become patterns that close off further enquiry, congeal and evince the possibility of misuse, ill use and manipulation by people who don’t necessarily apprehend their inconclusiveness and limitations . ”A whistling woman” is, to me, a polemical and topical novel whose breath of knowledge and imperatives of understanding before propounding, anchoring in a space of thoughtfulness than cursory witticisms and perennial porousness to learn is sanguinary and affirmative. A.S Byatt’s scepticism about revolutions and human nature cannot be gainsaid but neither can the pyrotechnic bountifulness of her intelligence and attentiveness to phenomena be denied . The realist novel in the Frederica potter quartet shows the potentialities of the model, of all that it can encapsulate and the connective tissues it can straddle .  If, as Frederica cogitates the point is to defend reason from unreason then it behoves reason to be inclusive, open minded and seeking.


Michael Adair , in David Malouf’s ”The conversations at curlow creek” is to execute an irish rebel in New south wales, in the 1820’s. Daniel  Carney, about to be executed the next morning, spends his last night alive in a colloquy with Adair, wherein moments of intensified interchange are interspersed by moments of reflection. Adair, irish too, vacillates between fellow feeling and the ponderous gravity of the execution which is his responsibility. This one night proves to be momentous for Adair .

A novel can , at its most engaging, make time stand still. But time is not a knowable quantity reducible to stasis . It has an inexorable flow, an unstoppable relentlessness of its own. Carny’s imminent death represents a finality that cannot be disavowed and its actualization is to be brought about by Adair. This symbiotic bond unites the two men who both engage in guarded surface talk while the intensities of their consciousness converge, diverge and recompose in a harmony both outside time, given the ineluctability of death for Carney and the compression and heightened depth of crosscurrents of inwardness communing and self communing that this precipitates .


Adair’s past is recollected in eventful interludes. His orphaned state, being taken on by his aunt . Beset by a permanent sense of being an interloper Adair withholds the intensity of spontaneous feelings through observance to routine, order and seemliness. His aunt bears a son later named  Fergus on whom Adair pours out the density of his storehouse of love and solicitude. It is Fergus’s putative death in New south wales that Adair sets out to investigate , and the novel hints at the possibility that Fergus may have, under an assumed identity, died alongside a tussle which involves the forthcoming extinction of Carney by the law of the land. Adair’s discrepancy between a conventional outer self and a rich interior life is captured powerfully by Malouf. Loving Virgilia , with whom he has had childhood lessons and witnessing Virgilia’s burgeoning love for Fergus Adair stands as an outsider, even in the jurisdiction of his sense of his experience. Fergus is both diametrically opposite to and an extension of Adair. Physically active, scruffy, dishevelled, a natural heir, Fergus emblematizes the vitality and unreflective immersion in experience Adair feels debarred from, accustomed to witnessing his actions, studiously avoiding outward submergence into febrile states of being, staving off terror of the unknown and unknowable through fixity, orderliness and civilization. It is in his letters to Virgilia as an adult that Adair unspools the prodigiousness of his florid interiority. Love turns him inside out , necessitating a self analysis that cannot be circumscribed in factual, abstruse expatiations but require artful reassembling , locating in the multiplicity of language, the appropriate emotional textures to embed complexity of being. These letters disperse and to an extent displace the shadow self in Adair waiting to be born.

It is in New south wales, at the Antipodes that the rite of passage happens. Exhausted and ruminative Adair inhabits   the apposite receptivity of consciousness to absorb Carney. Carney’s intermittent though sincere snippets of life reveal poverty, hardship, a murder and then revolutionary fervour. Yet beguiled by the laconic though persuasive raconteur ing of Carney and preternaturally porous to the intimations of desire, loss, absence and physicality of being Adair’s perceptions of Carney conglomerate in  a variegated , attenuated  , quickened and quickening composite of seeing and experiencing. United in this fatal bond of executioner and executed Adair feels bleeding into him both the indomitable corporality of Carney as well as intimations of Carney’s disaggregated life experiences, muddled by projection from his own life experiences and formative history as well as superimposed unbidden, in a way beyond the barricades of an immediately conscious and experiential self , into contours of perception that alter him. Unsusceptible to a reality beyond that of his body Adair after this night would rediscover a new found appreciation of the anchorage of his being and its weightlessness, as his cognizance of being has now perforce to incorporate the unfathomed and undeciphered . The Australian landscape augments this metamorphosis , the cold winter night and the subsequent bright morning – a landscape yet untapped fully, glimmering with vistas discoverable, capacious, illimitable , sharply outlined with myriad colours, scents and feelings evoked . The reality of the bush is not gainsaid , nor the struggle to tame a landscape uncontainable by human will. The boundaries of primitivism and civilization dissolve in the novel, including for the characters. The quotidian , perceivable in Carney’s washing his body before execution becomes a focus point, a stillness , a moment extending into a vision of human fragility and simplicity that imprints itself memorably and alters the perceptions of the participants and witnesses . Adair in the story experiences desire as an unbidden force that has a will of its own and replenishes his self satisfaction with his self conception of  durability yet this body, reservoir of a certitude amid the unknown, often experiences propulsions of consciousness that reveal to  it both its minuscule truth as a speck in the cosmos and an affirmative rooting in its physiognomy’s stolidity and solidity.

Supervising the process of execution are bushmen Garrety , Langhurst and Kersey, minor characters but delineated with complex subjectivities. Langhurst recalls Adair, though singularly himself. Langhurst’s painstaking self probing is counterpointed by his ability to seamlessly embroil himself in adolescent playfulness and jostling with Garrety , who evokes Fergus in his physical durability and precocity as well as his sharp divination or perhaps prefiguration of possible dangers lurking in the bush. These men work hard , physical toil and survival in an unknown landscape requires a tenacity and fearlessness they needs must simulate but cannot successfully dissemble, overawed as they are by this monumental landscape. The consolations of civilization have not yet been established. A nascent sense of taming the wilderness and supplementing civilized order is far off their minds. Frolicsome enjoyment of snatched moments of happiness, unsuspected , unsought and startling propinquity disgorged in the momentary complicities built up suffice. There is also a black man in this unofficial and ragged  camp of supervisors , Jonas, a mysterious presence as also a bedraggled one, ill treated due to his race and lowly status, a native of the bush, repository of a wisdom inaccessible to his more rough and tumble white counterparts .

”The conversations at curlow creek”’ ends mysteriously, with Adair having helped Carney escape and embalmed as a legend in the making of a history unforeseen by him. Marriage to    Virgilia is a tantalizing possibility  embarked on with hope. Virgilia is a conduit to Adair for Fergus and vice versa. Alike in their convoluted inner lives yet unalike temperamentally Virgilia and Adair in their conjoined yet disparate beings conjoin on the focal point of Fergus whom both love and mourn uniquely.  Yet Virgilia is nebulous too, plumbing the unstated depths of Adair from childhood, secomd guessing the turbulences of his cleft between inner and outer .Adair falls in love with Virgilia .Tactfully circumventing  a deeper knowing of Fergus during the embryonic phase of adolescence due to the self imposed and inconceivable and unbridgeable distance Adair feels as an adopted child Adair never figures out Fergus whose ineffableness after his death persists. The novel chiefly traces out, through the conversations between Carney and Adair, a narrative of Australia both historical, albeit through fiction and anterior. Timelessness in the novel, intuited by Adair and Carney is inseparable from the nullity or nothingness of death that is officially under way. The civilized patina of Adair is problematized by the stirrings of primordial desire and fathomless surges of vertiginous bewilderment prompted by the bush and his own repressions. Justice , the basis of civilization is undermined in the cogitations of Adair as an expedient restraint that takes place in an atmosphere of power and corruptibility that makes monsters out of men, exploits vulnerability and hardship to extract advantage and brutalizes and desensitizes. Hovering underneath the novel’s narrative is the brutality of colonialism though enlivened by Malouf’s refusal to present his characters as stereotypes. David malouf writes poetically, penetratingly and with his foot as an author both in the begrimed, ineffaceable, sordid , beautiful, sensuous, tactile immediacy of this world and  also out of respect for the amorphousness of ultimate reality, whose visitations, however transitory , are vouchsafed when self and world, self and other intermingle and create a tremulously  hinted at, unguessable but incandescent otherworldliness.


The human species is outlived by the universe. Our presence on this planet, this edifice of our civilization is provisional and part of a larger interconnected cosmos whose vastness surpasses human comprehension. The trajectory of our civilization through centuries is an ebbing and flowing- an advance here, a retraction there . Progress is never unequivocal nor is evolution untrammelled although temporal progression has its own ineluctable causality. Self transcendence and self destruction are the simultaneities human consciousness grapples with. Thus moments of great beauty and terror, joy and sorrow, thoroughgoing joy and unremitting despair are not so much polarities as a mosaic where the hues of our presence on this planet are equipoised. Although our own experience of these intensities requires a balance whose lineaments are incalculable but whose experience is potent albeit incommunicable. However overweening our hubris we have collectively muddled through civilizations and centuries, learning more about ourselves but given our insatiable curiosity  and inveterate invidiousness , circumscribing and compartmentalizing this knowledge in discrete structures and ideas .


2017 presents in many ways an impassable abyss, or at least putatively. Perhaps the 20th century which witnessed the two world wars showed us an unprecedented visage of our potentiality for destruction. The dystopian imagination has been part of human thought much as utopias have. At the heart of dystopia, which is contemplated in fear and trembling, is a residual apprehension of our hubris, the possibility of extinguishment, mortality and mass destruction . Dystopias are also, with their forebodings, a kind of utopia, holding up  a mirror, postulating an ”if this persists or continues this may be the result ” . Dystopias are also like morality tales somewhere except alternate worlds or extrapolated possibilities, which are an intensification and exacerbation of a tumultuous present , with technology and imminent extinction  take on redoubtable force. Our crises today globally is manifold- the environment and  nature can unleash its impersonal havoc , capitalism and neoliberalism , with their focus on profiteering and exploitation harnessing culture and idealism, have precipitated gulfs and splintered the microcosmic oases of family, community and religion. Liberalism and globalization have created a deceptive patina of a network of possibilities belied by the irrefutable exploitations and propagandas they have permeated culturally. The idea that the bulwark of civilization, brittle and tenuous, tottering under its inconsistencies , may disintegrate , is reawakened and lodged deeply. So much is at stake and disillusion is tempting. But commitment also glimmers as an unavoidable reality ,necessitating a tenacity that withstands damage .

In the face of such teeming contradictions and collective misgivings Lynne Segal’s ”Radical happiness” offers a realistic overview of possibility and hope.Starting and focusing on the uk to expand into a global framework Lynne Segal posits engagement and connection as a reprieve and a way of bringing about change. Rooting happiness in the collective, in a way to surmount the obstacles of the self and find footholds through kinship, caring and resilience Lynne Segal’s book peregrinates history, culture, literature, the zeitgeist , religion and ideology to work through her central idea- that given human nature’s history and the wearisome and enervating stasis of the insuperability of any change that is proliferating as the stranglehold of neoliberalism tightens , there is  a way of staving off disenchantment by thinking beyond the self and examining human consciousness in both its sanguinary and deleterious manifestations .


Whether it is religious ecstasy ,or revolutionary fervour, protest or social movements like feminism, lgbtiq activism or being in love and suffering unmitigated despair  Lynne Segal both presciently attunes her reading to their asymmetries and the enshrining of a collective partaking of joy. Joy, which, as she cannily observes, being unbidden, unsought, uncalculated and therefore surprising by its effervescence and communality , be it for a fractional temporal sliver or a protracted commitment . Joy which takes the self out of its exigencies and expediencies into a shared landscape of suffering and affirmation. Joy that runs counter to the aggressive individualism characteristic of deracinated modern communities, fragmenting cultures and split psyches. Traversing Plato  , Freud, Walter Benjamin, Hegel, Marx, Marge piercy as well as swathes of history in compressed form from the ancient greek culture to the renaissance and the 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th and 21st century Lynne Segal’s book compresses the flotsam and jetsam, pull and push of humanity both straining against its fastness and endeavouring to outmanoeuvre its constraints. While acknowledging the violence of history ”Radical happiness ” also locates its filaments of collective spirit . Socialist feminism in the uk becomes an important and moving focus point in the book , irradiated by Lynne Segal’s personal experience and activism. Her reading of human history that she elucidates her hypothesis with is informed by an understanding of the impossibility and unattainability of utopia and the unobtainability of  a permanent state of  happiness . Yet her balanced view of humanity, unhampered by scepticism but imbued with awareness is salutary . The dangers faced by the uk at present- the benefit cuts, increasing austerity, atomized communities, the increasing mental health crisis is interspersed with the ripples of these disquieting currents swamping other parts of the world where capitalism, neoliberalism and their concomitant pathologies and resultant leaching of hope are unignorable and incontrovertible. The personal is political in ”Radical happiness” as a conceptualization of happiness and authenticity in a microcosmic space, be it personal relations or the relational is insufficient to absorb and expend the prodigiousness and uncategorisable nature of love which is a word both fathomless yet experiential.

Reading this thoughtful book, with its refusal to get bogged down by the miasmas of our present I am both admiring yet unhopeful. My admiration is for Lynne Segal’s synthesis of disparate realms – from philosophy, psychoanalysis , culture, politics, history, to show us a present which, for all its dangers , is in some ways much better even if worse in others. I find persuasive and inspiring too Lynne Segal’s betokening a way through the morass  of the here and now through commitment and an unflagging yet self analytical embedding in collective spaces. Her antidote to the individualism, loneliness, relational failures and collective portents in the form of acknowledging and striving for a radical happiness outside of the self’s embargo of desire, suffering, loss by processing and amalgamating them , indivisibly yet collectively, is pertinent. But my unhopefulness, which Segal herself admits to towards the end of her fine book  , lies in the formidable task of restructuring at various levels this would require. I remain less optimistic about an upsurge of awareness at a large scale but I certainly foresee alterations in consciousness that would concentrically widen , though whether their elongation will be efficacious or timely remains unformulable. However the presence of  Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders, voices like Naomi klein and Segal’s herself demonstrate that across the world , counter movements, protests, alternative possibilities , propositions of methodologies that try to tackle realpolitik pragmatically , iruptions of human decency and integrity as well as the unassailable honour of the necessity of struggle is a beacon to cherish and value  and remember .

”Radical happiness” is an ambitious book and like all ambitious books whose thesis is erudite, wide ranging and multidisciplinary there is  both a limitation  and an expansiveness in/of  the subject matter . By what process these metamorphoses in consciousness and collectivism may materialize is amorphous and unforeseeable. Do individuals do this by anchoring themselves in a sagacious knowledge of their species and variegated histories ? Is this broadening of mind and empathy and commitment as immanent in human nature as the darker depredations of our psyches are ? And were a more conducive and prepossessing state of being and affairs supervene, both globally and individually, in rights and alliances and mutuality , is there any certitude as to its continuance before another implosion ? These are unanswerable conundrums and the world too convoluted and labyrinthine at present to enable this inhabitation of the polysemousness within and without. Disentangling the layers requires work and patience disallowed by the competitiveness and momentum of accelerating changes and information overload. Lynne Segal astutely refuses to expatiate on these imponderables because there can be no approach that can be definitive nor can any approach modify human nature’s heterogeneity. But there are processes and ways one can strive to do one’s best, to do what the Sufis call ”to be in the world but not of it.” Lynne Segal is determinedly both in the world and of it and I am disarmed and convinced by her buoyancy , tempered as it is with a clear eyed understanding of both the perilous and exhilarating stresses/joys  of our times.



”The lucky ones” by  Rachel Cusk is not so much a novel but a series of interlinked short stories that deal with motherhood and filial bonds. The central yet peripheral narrative strand holding the interconnection is the lawyer Victor Porter and his  wife and columnist  Serena whose articles detail the minutiae of domestic life and motherhood, in both its quotidian and transformative processes .


The first story is of Kirsty , a young pregnant woman from the  Barrows,  imprisoned for a crime she hasn’t committed. Pregnancy is both phantasmagoric and all too real for Kirsty, a cocoon  into whose physiological fastness she can surrender herself to for momentary oblivion and a grim actuality that is inescapable. The story , while interspersed with snippets from Kirsty’s past details her navigation of pregnancy and the actual pregnancy which is uncharted territory physically and psychically and dismembers the core of her self.  Kirsty conceives gracelessly, at the back of a police car while being driven to the hospital. And Rachel cusk describes her pain and inward sensations with a raw primal immediacy that is both convincing and untarnished by fancy descriptions. Kirsty has an awareness that her wrongful imprisonment means her child will be taken away . The lawyer  fighting her case, Victor Porter, suffers and dies from cancer and has to withdraw from the case . The story is appositely titled ”Confinement”.

The second story ”The way you do it” concerns Martin who seeks a vacation in the Alps in the immediate aftermath of his daughter’s birth to escape the tumults of fatherhood and his wife Dominique’s postnatal depression. Martin experiences fatherhood as a rent that nonetheless has a continuity. His initial ministrations to his daughter in the face of Dominique’s withdrawal is imbued with overprotectiveness for the baby and a desperate urge to flee , thereby effacing the rancorous interchanges that might putatively unspool  with a combative Dominique . Responsibility is an encumbrance and the desire to circumvent urgent. The alps, where Martin does skiing dexterously becomes both a haven and a grim forearming for the duty that will supervene. Skiing represents for Martin, in its motion , fluidity and concentrated attentiveness , a pleasurable void, a blankness where movement takes on its own life and confers a stalling of cogitation. Since the trip happens with friends  and their spouses Martin retroactively rediscovers his own youth , an experience reminiscent of his initial  timorous caring for his daughter where his own consciousness of haplessness and need alternate with the then insurmountable distension of responsibility.  As a man for whom apprehending of femininity in the form of motherhood is inaccessible Martin is unseated , especially in his erroneous presupposition that femininity in Dominique would transmute into a seamless acclimatization to motherhood .


The third story ”The sacrifices” contains an unnamed narrator, sister of Lucy, whom Martin vacationed with in the Alps alongside her husband Christian. The unnamed narrator is an adult who has too strong an imprint of childhood. Oversensitive , needy and on uneasy terms with reality this narrator peregrinates life with a sense of experiences experienced with unreality while the sharpened piquancy of childhood perception continues unabated. Her romantic relationships seem like an apparition against which absences sustained throughout childhood and adolescence, whether imaginative or as contretemps or unexplained familial circumstantial cataclysms take on a redoubtable force.  marriage with a man with a child from a prior liaison provides a tremulous  space for redirecting unprocessed emotional states but founders. Wariness leads her partner to abstain from parenthood and with the decamping of his son to his own mother  and the resultant separation leads the unnamed narrator to disorientation  . Too far gone in age for motherhood and too disenchanted for intimacy she regresses to childhood memories , revisiting mnemonics, including the house she lived in to find a trace, an anchor for a depersonalized self. The potentiality of motherhood snuffed out becomes an ineffaceable loss even though the narrator’s own relationship to her mother is wary, hypervigilant and replete with unarticulated, unstated areas of experience , parental and generational. Motherhood for the narrator is now unrealizable , suffusing her with a valedictory wistfulness for a dimension of being she left unplumbed . There is a disjointed schizoid quality striating this first person narration, a sense of uncoupling, a disconnection between childhood and adulthood, self and the world.


”Mrs. Daley’s daughter”, the fourth story deals with Mrs. Daley’s embroilment in a situation at age sixty one where her daughter Josephine, suffering postpartum depression, surrenders herself to parental care  . Mrs. Daley , due to her generational distance, views Josephine with disfavour , resenting this unseemly inroad by her least favoured offspring . Memories of instances of childhood deprivation to Josephine commingle with the irremovable envy she feels for her daughter, a function of both Josephine’s age and access to experiential realms Mrs. Daley feels herself debarred from , although couching her antipathy on moral, sanctimonious terms. The young baby becomes a receptacle for overcompensation in the interim as Mrs. Daley finds a channel to realign her apprehensions of ageing, mortality and the befuddlement with modern life and teeming urbanity that has inundated rural Ravenley, rendering it unrecognizable. The generation gap is a disconcerting phenomenon for Mrs. Daley who both upholds and upbraids the dispensation that circumscribed her, extols the virtues of motherhood and seemliness while bewailing the loss of self that inveigled for her, partly by her own conditioning. Compounding and imperilling these self contradictions is Josephine’s presence with the  baby which become safety valves for intermittent iruptions of ire and re immersion in domesticity. Accustomed to deference from her uncommunicative , circumspect husband , believing she inhabited a state of uxorious contentment , Mrs. Daley discovers through this experience the yoke her husband suffered under social constraints as a man .


”Matters of life and death” , the last story concerns Vanessa , whose experience of motherhood is a complex inhabitation of being. Protective of her young children yet aware of flurries of unanticipated ambivalence , seeing the children as vulnerable  as well as fellow appendages for her unappreciative husband Colin , Vanessa experiences the tasks attendant upon motherhood and nurture through the double consciousness of unrewarding, wearisome toil that is unacknowledged and a transporting into depths of rarefied emotion that are a remnant of formative feelings of her own and an accompaniment to the processes of becoming a mother . Vanessa sees motherhood as a gift and a sundering force that severs her from her husband , dislodging their previous pattern of intimacy. Colin’s brusque disregard of motherhood is dispiriting and worsened by his burgeoning affair with another woman after a professional meltdown. Vanessa’s ambiguous inner topography in conjunction with her tenuous life circumstances is counterpointed and enhanced by her meeting Serena and Victor Porter. Serena, the columnist , as witnessed by Vanessa , is as flabbergasted by the irreconcilability between self determination and responsibility engendered by marriage and motherhood. Serena’s column disperses and deflects her unresolved conundrums through her confessional column .


”The lucky ones” offers a glimpse of parenthood and family bonds in an unvarnished way. Rachel cusk’s elegant prose tunnels into the inwardness of her characters and dissects their subterranean wellsprings compellingly . Almost all the young mothers in the novel are caught in the interstices of the transmogrification motherhood involves or ushers in and their resistance to this metamorphosis, or an unwillingness to relinquish or let areas of existence be swamped by motherhood. Yet motherhood is for these women, be it Kirsty, Lucy, Vanessa something that makes indentations on the self that cannot be disavowed. Love for offspring is both transference, recapitulation of their own infant selves and a definitive marking point. But a marking point that is a foreclosure , with an unquenchable feeling that this alteration is a foregone conclusion that would truncate their potentialities in life. The ennui, tedium and sporadic boredom of motherhood coexists with the deepening of the bond of love, solicitude and nurture that, converging with the larger crosscurrents of gradations of life’s contingent vicissitudes , is processed as prodigious emotion, at times, immoderate, elsewhere becoming its own antithesis , as deracination and unassuageable discontent. Motherhood is not romanticized or its angst unchallenged . Continuing from her memoir ”A life’s work” Rachel cusk’s ”The lucky ones” augments her exploratory framework of what motherhood implies for a woman and how can it find pathways to be coextensive with feminism. Parenthood for almost all characters in the novel is a sort of shock, the gap between the baby as an amorphous mass of cells gradually growing, into the process of pregnancy and as a corporeal other , a fleshly embodiment of a life cycle enshrined and consecrated by culture is overpowering. The concept and reality produce concomitant reactions and landscapes of feeling. Rachel cusk does not negate unlikeable parts of the personality or the impassable gulfs that separate women and men, daughters and mothers . ”The lucky ones” interweaves these disparate strands in the form of a mosaic, the stories exist indivisibly yet overlap and leak into each other . A fine book.




Sibling relationships are, as psychologists increasingly recognize, a fraught space. Outside of the familial space the sibling is, in effect, an extension of the self and also an other. The map or blueprint of the psyche is in part geared towards both acknowledgement of self in its totality and a fear that complete understanding would leave very little of a self to hold onto for  a semblance of being. Thus the most intimate relationships, however profound the love , are often deadlocked in this symbiosis, of seeing and feeling intensely while simultaneously feeling tethered by the embargo of this commonality and dyadic communion. A feeling of suffocation, a yearning, alongside a residual irresolvable ache for this early intimacy exists with a fear of being swamped.


It is this intensification that plays out in A.S Byatt’s second novel ”The game”, between Julia and Cassandra. Cassandra, the elder sister is an oxford don while Julia, the younger sibling, is a novelist. Their childhood exists as a sort of Bronte like folie a deux, with an imaginative collusion created out of mythological personages enacting grand romances and quests. Julia , an eager initiate into this imaginative magnification is, as she grows, baffled by Cassandra’s withdrawal. With the inveterate curiosity of a writer and a relish for small details Julia seeks, in her novels, an externalization and counterbalancing of inner and outer. While Cassandra, hurt by this extrapolation of her self created space into the outside, retreats from any reckoning with Julia through detachment and indifference, punctuated by interludes of customary consanguinary politesse .Simon, a young man fascinated by snakes who as an adult does a television documentary on snakes , is the focal point where the calamitous intersection of inward and outward converge where Julia and Cassandra are concerned .


Cassandra teaches at oxford and is  fascinated by facts, ferreting out encrypted layers in symbols , precariously holding on to her self possession through a labyrinthine inwardness peopled by an overwhelming expansiveness of perception. Objects loom capaciously, the minutiae of phenomenon are experienced in bright swathes of color and texture. It is almost a schizoid split, soldered by a gruff outward self, austere and functional with an unprocessed, unresolved inwardness. Simon’s precipitate departure compounds the dispossession for both Cassandra and Julia. Simon is a catalyst but also a creation of Julia and Cassandra and therefore he is both spectral and overpoweringly real, ebbing and flowing between a mythological person and a tangible entity. Julia more emotionally engaging and susceptible to hurt and resentment manages to negotiate reality in a more manageable fashion.Writing is a crystallization of states of discomfiture and alienation and an alertness to the surfaces of the outside world ensures a prolongation of curiosity and involvement. So while Julia too never grows up until she has to, a simulacrum of competence and elasticity, which is real inasmuch as it mirrors her emotional templates , makes her get through life. Julia is fashioned or fashions herself  in Cassandra’s image, seeking a vindication and reaffirmation of self from her unforthcoming sister who is both appalled by this ”ungracious” neediness and unutterably terrified that the fortification of her internal world, shared with her sister , if yielded and proffered as recompense would weaken her , dismantle her.


It is this inevitability of catastrophe that is ensured . Threaded through the early parts of the novel are disquisitions by Simon on television about snakes, with the cycle of rebirth, regeneration , decay and revivification of biological and ecological processes. Prefacing the novel is a Coleridge quotation about the circuitous irresolution of  the serpentine metaphysic coiling, uncoiling in spirals of continual indecipherability . And in a way the course of the novel demonstrates a snarling and entanglement of the sisters, an enmeshing that is indissociable . Meeting at their house while their father dies Cassandra and Julia play the childhood game again. A truce seems to be a tentative possibility snuffed out by Simon’s return to England. The cataclysmic event in the novel is the publication of Julia’s novel about herself Cassandra and Simon in fictional form. Envisaging Cassandra’s distress and baroque  inner life the novel draws together a composite character , an amalgam of Cassandra and Julia who , in the novel, is at a crossroads after failing to reconcile imagination and reality. In real life this crossroads forks out differently for the sisters. Cassandra takes her own life, irretrievably ensnared in a world and reality she cannot find reprieve from, choked by her sister’s putting out in the world what was essentially private and a reason to survive. While  Julia, seeing Cassandra’s self annihilation as a reproach to herself has to will herself into tenacity and indestructibility as a possibility in order to survive. The novel ends with Julia anticipating a future mired in reality and impersonality, where the incursions of pain and inner tumult have to be rigorously channelled and surmounted. The curiosity of the novelist, both sympathetic and omnivorous, overrides the unremitting despair of irreparably losing her sibling.

Cassandra and Julia share an intense inner life as children, emblematized in the game. Yet their personalities, while tangibly distinct, become disseverably cleaved to the game itself. Cassandra longs for selfhood in her own fashion, but by seeing her sibling as an appendage who must be circumvented and separated from. While Julia seeks a continuation of an intimacy with Cassandra that is now peremptorily split. Julia’s low self esteem and need for love leaves her enraged and yearning for her sister’s approbation, deflected into fictions and emollient oversharing of her life and emotions with sympathetic listeners . Onto any attentive close bond Julia does an outpouring of this inconclusive , unfinished though impassioned propinquity with her sister. Cassandra cannot thoughtlessly and inconsiderably blot out Julia from existence yet cannot shudder her ontological fear of what she perceives/misperceives as the parasitism intrinsic to Julia , with her own essence or kernel of being as some kind of  carrion Julia needs must feed on. At an ostensible level this kind of disharmony between Cassandra and Julia, if seen as the unexceptionable emotional inchoateness characteristic of real life in many ways , seems absurdly exaggerated by the sisters to themselves. Yet being engraved with their childhood as they are, inexpungibly and immutably , the trace and adhesive underside is incontrovertible and persistent. Simon himself comes across as a free floating subjectivity, with Cassandra’s impassivity, pugnacity and search for foothold in the scientific study of snakes  as well as a desire to burrow into the world through intimacy and fellow feeling such as Julia endeavours to work with in her peregrination through life. Simon’s almost disintegrating unreason is held by Cassandra when they meet as adults , now middle aged, whose own offshoot of childhood intimacy, though unaltered in essence, is modified by the indentations of experience and further disaggregation from reality. Cassandra commits suicide but Simon survives. Simon blocks off feeling while Cassandra and Julia feel too much. Julia expresses emotion fulsomely with Cassandra’s taciturnity comes across a belligerence, being in actuality a terror of exposing emotional incertitude . The sisters bleed into each other’s essences and can still at a deep level, not understand each other. Because understanding with rationality would imperil the very spirit of their incommensurable differences , differences half apprehended , occasionally glimpsed and intractably maintained at the cost of  locating the commingling of its fibres of attachment  but not encompassed in a reasoned dialogue and sorting out. The similarity that underpins the sisters is equally graspable despite their divergent personalities because the root of emotion, the redoubtable bond that constitutes their lived experience has a singularity inalienably its own.


Julia’s marriage to Thor, a man of immoderate inwardness brought up In the context of quaker modesty and industriousness and service , also splinters. Thor marries Julia both for his wistful affection for her child likeness as well as an exasperation with it. Julia’s daughter Deborah is uncannily like Cassandra and bridles at her parent’s incompatibility . Rapproachment becomes impossible as Thor, unstintingly dutiful, drives himself crazy by not accepting human nature as it is. Thus in the novel both the irreducibility of unvarnished, unfathomable reality and the haven offered by a romantic imagination jostle and ricochet for all the major characters. The game in that sense becomes a code word for the bulwark of imperfection and escapism that can buttress momentarily from the fast pressures of a rapidly accelerating reality and inwardness but only by having some imbedding in people and life as it stands at present. Julia , for all her indeterminacy and tremulousness comes close to this balance but by wreaking inadvertent and partly wilful destruction through the  writing of  that novel about the game. Suddenly the sloshing around of this tempestuous interiorities is out in the world. Imagination is powerful yet dangerous. It can cocoon from reality but can, if superimposed on the world unchecked , unleash untold harm.


”The game” is a novel that is morbid and powerful , irresistibly fascinating, suffused with interlaced intellectual strands on free will and predestination, responsibility and uncommitted , unfettered right of self exploration, self and other , the interpersonal circuity of dense interrelations and sibling rivalry and love. Julia can both misattribute her unexamined insistence on protracted sibling closeness as a form of love and exploit it , perhaps in a manner unwilled , for creative purposes . Yet she seeks from her sibling, through her ineffectual forays into some kind of reconnaissance , an intimacy that is impossible. While disrespecting Cassandra’s right to disengage Julia is also not blameworthy in seeking a deeper interchange by breaking down the barriers that inhibit and constrain. Yet it is this that is unimaginable for Cassandra who needs to preserve distance between inner and outer. An efflorescence of paintings unspools from  Cassandra before her suicide, expressions of the prodigiousness of sight, sound, image, colour, texture that inundates her retina and perspectival lens while reality becomes indistinct and blurry.  There is a foredoomed quality to her self extinguishment yet her resilience so far is commendable. ”The game” does not sugarcoat the painful bonds of familial love, nor does it provide redemptive closures. The chemistry between the sisters, gravid with the unarticulated and the gracelessly uttered, distended with energies and antipathies rigidly interlocked and disallowed from being vented , is electrifying to read as well as troubling. As a second novel by A.S Byatt there is a raw , visceral primeval quality to the writing irradiated by the inquisitive , questing intelligence of A,S Byatt, examining the confluence of intellect and feeling, teasing out nuances , measuring ideas and states of mind with /against reality. A disconcerting and unforgettable book .



Edith Wharton’s rich and nuanced novel ”The reef” begins with a delay- a delay that George Darrow, the central male protagonist feels as a millstone, because it protracts the possibility of an avowal of love from Anna Leath, who is now widowed and reconsidering remarriage. In the face of the unavowed George Darrow is left in the lurch, in a tumult of indecision. Uncertainty about Anna’s fervour , consolidated by her terse telegram, induces insecurity and the resultant inadequacy is circumvented through distraction. The source of distraction is Sophy Viner, an underling, a maid at Mrs. Murrett where Darrow had stayed though barely noticed Sophy. But in the light of day the unremarkableness  of Sophy in an indistinct blur of servitude is obviated by his seeing her freshly as she is – ingenuous, eager, desirous of a career as an actor for the theatre . Sophy exemplifies the candour and unaffected spontaneity that is a poultice to Darrow’s incertitude about Anna. And it is this quest to salvage hurt pride and imbue an interlude of purposelessness with pleasure that prompts his solicitude to Sophy who, impoverished, poor and growing up loveless fastens on to. Although the cupidity of desire accounts for Darrow’s attentiveness it is also Sophy’s freedom from upper class affectations , her gratitude for simple kindness that disarms her. Her rootedness in her emotion and her ardour for life is an antidote to the desiccated observance of convention and rectitude that he perceives in Anna. An evening of watching the play ”Oedipe” becomes, in the novel, an unfurling of chaos .


Darrow’s class difference from Sophy makes her an other whose unawakened and inexperienced understanding of life is perceived as unsophisticated by George. Though familiar with travail Sophy is ill equipped , as Darrow misconstrues , to taste the finer refinements of analysis and reflection. Yet this very voracity with which Sophy plunges into an existence littered with unknowns for the future that concomitantly excites Darrow. He feels alternately protective of her innocence and experience as also slightly contemptuous of it, overridden by her attractiveness. An evening of concupiscence culminates their momentous intersection and Darrow returns to Anna subsequently , after entangling himself with Sophy as a /in response to Anna’s putative coldness .


Anna, upper class, rich , sheltered and mannered, is an antithesis to Sophy yet also an extension of Sophy. Class might separate them – and where education might have burnished Anna with a relish for analysis and taciturnity and an uneasy coexistence with decorum then so has poverty and hardihood and subservience rendered Sophy uninitiated into rarefied emotions and high feelings. The inner life of Sophy and Anna responds to Darrow with the same primal intensity and the depth of their ardour and their willingness for self abnegation is another point of contact. Anna lives in potentia, hoping for a miraculous transformative love after years of uxorious emptiness . Insulated from life’s harsh challenges and having no reckoning with the debasements of human nature Anna’s exultation of experience without experiencing is inversely and coterminously mirrored  by Sophy whose pinched beginnings and low expectations make her guileless and hypervigilant and susceptible to kindness and reciprocity .


It is in Givre, the French residential accommodation of Anna’s ex husband that the action of the novel supervenes. Darrow returns to Anna who, relinquishing her timorous forebodings, avows her emotional attachment , demonstrating the longing Darrow had felt absent in her. This vulnerability to feeling in Anna is not a materialization of unsuspected propensities and desires but a reawakening of her latent emotional energies that had slumbered dormant yet expectant, in thrall of unmet experience but circumscribed by convention and dutifulness. Anna’s redoubtable mother in law , step son Owen and young daughter accept Darrow. But the climax of the novel is the revelation that Sophy viner was the governess of Anna’s daughter and engaged to Owen. And Darrow’s presence precipitates a crises whose ramifications resound through these character’s life.

Sophy’s repressed ardour , flippantly brushed aside as an adventure but imprinted as a flowering into life and love by Darrow cannot be curtailed on reacquaintance . Owen becomes an appendage for Sophy , an immature embodiment of a love that she never felt as love. While Anna’s own repression is concentrated on Darrow as a fruition and passage to a full life she had hitherto avoided penetrating due to duty and custom. Owen’s emotional instability and vacillations are  expressions of the energetic lability of youth though his passions run deep. The discovery of that brief amorous encounter between Darrow and Sophy becomes the epicentre whose vibrations unspool variegatedly. Anna loses her faith in Darrow, Sophy breaks off her engagement to Owen and chooses sacrifice , hoping this noble gesture would reunite Anna and Darrow and vindicate and authenticate the wellsprings of her love for Darrow, gilded and incandescent in its unconsummated finality, though enlivened and seared on the heart as a memory of a serendipitious and unforeseen intermittent communion.


Yet it is this sacrifice of Sophy  Anna cannot countenance. Anna’s journey from ignorance to experience involves a confrontation with the omnivorousness of her own longings. Resentful of Sophy for having had a glimpse of Darrow impermissible to her by convention and class yet pitying and venerating the nobility of Sophy’s renunciation , cleft between the irrepressible desire her parched heart feels with Darrow after widowhood yet sceptical about the constancy and guarantee of unbesmirched continuance of love from him Anna prevaricates , oscillates and chooses renunciation as well. This renunciation, ostensibly in accord with convention is also in accord with the grandiose picture of romance, love and life Anna had. The worm of experience having been bestirred cannot be stamped. The knowledge of Darrow’s treachery would be an ineffaceable truth much as her own emotional mainsprings that are base and bottomless . Sacrifice offers a possibility of release from the torment of incessant dividedness. Areas of the inexpressible must remain unbroached for the knowledge of the propinquity of Darrow and Sophy would not ameliorate the pain of unknowing with a deeper suffusion of rediscovered redoubled love but would reaffirm the unbridgeable gulf  and unretractability between ignorance and experience.


Darrow succumbed  to a momentary temptation with Sophy in paris , an ill fated, ill advised descent into the inadmissible. The interesting thing in ”The reef” is the ebb and flow between knowing too much yet allowing too little to percolate consciously, the loquacity of unprocessed love and the wordlessness wrought from understanding the depthlessness of desire that assails all characters . Civilized discourse, politesse is distended with misspent passions , undirected emotions and free floating tortuous inner colloquies palliated by recourse to the aggrandizement of virtue. ”The reef” is an unhappy novel but a powerful one. Darrow himself is a nodal point, a convergence psychically, of the disparate yet conjoined emotional turbulences of Sophy and Anna. The divisions of class , age, experience recede in the presence of loss, love and loneliness. The indentation of reality is a painful self knowledge. Darrow is a conscientious man yet his compunction is  motivated as much by selfishness, his acceding to the choices of Anna and Sophy reveal his own unsure footing around his feelings. Divination of Anna’s inwardness as well as Sophy’s profounder heart strings cannot resolve the irreparable fractures a hazardous moment of weakness brought about .


”The reef ” has autobiographical elements but is such a polished novel, and so tender and moral in its examination of the minutiae of the unarticulated and the seemly façade of the social, so truthful in its blurring of the barricades of social conditioning and the false distinctions between the meretricious and the ennobling , and so tuned in to the subtleties of the heart that it becomes, beyond the powerful emotions it disinters and disassembles  , a moving book . As a peregrination of unrequited love and the impossibility of a common ground once experience makes unbidden and surreptitious inroads, often engraved despite one’s resistance to the onslaught of inrushing reality it remains a powerful, memorable book. Above all Edith Wharton’s mapping of the human heart and the never to be expunged roiling primitivism and  search for transcendence that constitutes the expectancy of that unhoped for yet  irremediably tarnished vista of a love lost in the moment of discovering the baroque and multifarious tides lapping at its preconceived, misconceived  purity is awesome. Henry james admired ”The reef” enormously and it is discernible as to why. Edith Wharton’s prose is precise, elegant, unpretentious and genteel but with a steely awareness of the amorphousness of the human heart and the incommensurability between the poles of society and individual, duty and desire, morality and the unpredictable expanses of a quickening and volatile interiority in and with love.