Every year is getting shorter never seem to find the time.
Plans that either come to naught or half a page of scribbled lines
Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way
The time is gone, the song is over,
Thought I’d something more to say.
– ‘Time’, The Dark Side of the Moon (1973), Pink Floyd
As a teacher, one of the most common retorts I get from students is ‘I don’t have time.’ I don’t have time to finish my homework, they say. I don’t have time to write ‘you’ a 400-word essay, they say. Every week, I see gremlin-sized ain’t nobody got time for that memes staring me live in the face.
Whenever that happens, I leave half an hour at the end of my lesson for them to write me an essay on ‘Why I Didn’t Have Time to Write an Essay This Week’, titled in glorious capitals. New pedagogical insight: Punitive karma is best served meta – take my word for it.
To a certain extent though, I empathise with these kids. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say that my approach is a case of pot calling the kettle black, I’m also guilty of poor time management these days.
Oh leisure reading, where art thou. I guess I’m blessed in that the nature of my job allows me to sneak in ‘reading time’ (i.e. picking excerpts from classics and close reading them with students), but I’m finding the luxury of finishing a book from cover to cover to be increasingly impossible. So much so I’ve resorted to reading essay collections lately, just so I don’t have to face the shame of leaving another narrative hanging.
In fact, one of the best essays I’ve recently read hits home my dilemma to a T. It’s a piece titled ‘Why Read the Classics’ by Italo Calvino, written in 1981:
The fact remains the classics seems to be at odds with our pace of life, which does not tolerate long stretches of time, or the space for humanist otium*; and also with the eclecticism of our culture which would never be able to draw up a catalogue of classic works to suit our own times.
The Italian author came from a family of agriculturalists, and he was the only one in the clan to pursue a career in literature. Given his background, he obviously appreciated the need for labour, but his decision to dedicate his life to writing is a testament to another type of productivity – that of the individual mind for the progress of human culture. But of course, ‘reading’ takes on different forms and degrees. Scrolling through a Facebook news feed on the MTR qualifies as reading, as does scanning the melange of billboards in the Central Business District.
The difficulty lies in mindful reading – that act of registering, holding onto, then mulling over each and every word which passes by your sight. Not skimming/scanning, but surrendering yourself to a kind of subliminal communion between the inanimate text and your mobilised sensitivity to the page. It’s the coalescence of your ‘thought’ and the ‘book-object’, wonderfully played out in a seemingly pedestrian instant.
It’s all good though, because I am dead set on my crusade in converting more Hong Kong students into lit-lovers (As such, I also vicariously indulge in my degree interest, which is cheeky but totes legit).
My Classroom Crusade
One of the ways I go about doing so is by incorporating more excerpts from classics – ancient and modern alike – in my writing curriculum. It might seem strange for me to focus so much on reading in what should be a creative writing course, but I’m a strong believer in learning from the ‘Greats’, because no one can truly develop a ‘good’ style without first being exposed to all the stylistic precedents in history. So far, I’ve used canonically British works like Thackeray’s Vanity Fair and Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, but also translated/modern ones from Flaubert (French), Sebald (German), Calvino (Italian, obvs), Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet (Portuguese), Alain de Botton’s Consolations of Philosophy (Belgian-English) etc.
In the coming lessons, I’m thinking of introducing my students to some Chinese and Japanese classics as well. The two works I have in mind are Lao She’s Mr Ma and Son (1929) and Yasunari Kawabata’s Snow Country (1956), both of which I read in my post-degree translation lit binge fest from June to August. They are each beautifully tragic works in their own right, but very different in that Lao She’s novel is a cross-cultural satire and Kawabata’s novella a lyrical romance – almost a kind of haiku in prose.
If I had to illuminate their difference in style with Anglicised parallels, the former would be Dickensian and the latter Woolfian. It’s slightly ironic how I’m more familiar with foreign authors than I am with works closer to home, and doubly ironic that I read them in translation. But anyway, I introduce them here because each portrays reading and writing in ways that I, and probably a lot of other ‘urban denizens’, can relate to.
Writing: ‘A Complete Waste of Effort’
In Kawabata’s Snow Country, there’s one moment where the geisha Komako and her love interest Shimamura talk about writing as an exercise in futility, which resonates with me on days when my demoralised, writer-wannabe self just cannah beh arsed to pick up a pen.
“You’ve kept a diary all this time?”
“Yes… but I don’t write every day. Some days I miss. Way off here in the mountains, every party’s the same. This year I couldn’t find anything except a diary with a new day on each page. It was a mistake. When I start writing, I want to write on and on.
But even more than at the diary, Shimamura was surprised at her statement that she had carefully catalogued every novel and short story she had read since she was fifteen or sixteen. The record already filled ten notebooks.
“You write down your criticisms, do you?”
“I could never do anything like that. I just write down the author and the characters and how they are related to each other. That is about all.”
“But what good does it do?”
“None at all.”
“A waste of effort.”
“A complete waste of effort,” she answered brightly, as though the admission meant little to her. She gazed solemnly at Shimamura, however.
(28-9, Penguin version)
But what good does it do? This is the question that all writers dread.
It’s an assault on the foundation upon which all creative labour rests, and a blunt adumbration of W.H. Auden’s line in his eulogy to W.B. Yeats – “For poetry makes nothing happen”. Shimamura’s negation is bleak, if not downright cruel, and Komako’s affirmation is, to me, doubly reflective of her dumb love for the man and very little love for herself. Not to be a spoiler, but from this exchange alone, I reckon you can already gauge the dynamics and outcome of their relationship.
Snow Country is a very quiet book, in which all the clues are lodged in the nuances; its beauty lies in how understated Kawabata presents everything. Throughout the 100-page narrative, an aesthetic osmosis is constantly at work, with the emotional tenor weaving itself into unspoken sibilants and subdued descriptions, as if orchestrating a muted ballet that commands attention to gestures, not sounds.
Reading: But not actually
Before Mr Ma and Son, I’ve only ever read one work by Lao She (老舍), and that’s embarrassing for a self-professed lit lover because he’s one of the most heavyweight 20th century Chinese authors. In Anglospheric terms, he’s the James Joyce of the Orient, if you will. I didn’t actively seek out Mr Ma and Son: it just so happened to be sitting on a shelf at the Oxfam back in St Giles, Oxford, and I thought it would be a nice change from my longstanding attachment to the Western canon. Again, cue irony, because this book is about the experience of two Chinamen navigating life in early 20th century London.
At the start of Chapter 21, the narrator describes a favourite pastime that the protagonist Ma Wei and I share:
Lately Ma Wei had been spending a lot of time at Regent’s Park. He would find a secluded spot, sit down and open a book… but he didn’t always read it. Sometimes he’d just read a few lines, knitting his brow, biting his thumb, and flicking back through the pages again and again, reading until golden flowers danced in front of his eyes and he no longer knew what he’d been reading. Then he’d put the book down on the grass and give himself a couple of fierce punches on the back of the head.
What did you come here for, if it wasn’t to read?
Hating himself didn’t help, and punching himself was a sheer waste of energy. It all boiled down to the fact that the words in the book weren’t going into his head.
(156-57, Penguin version)
Waste, words, self-loathing: all ideas that bridge over from the Kawabata extract. Except in this vignette, the interaction is solitary – a monologue in which Ma Wei chastises himself for failing to focus on the words in front of him.
This is where my empathy radar goes off like mad, given how often I find myself in this situation, when the concerns of living tyrannise my mental space in an attempt to impose a curfew on my concentration span. There are weeks when my copy of whatever I’m reading then sits in my handbag untouched for days, and by the time I revisit it I can just feel how bereft it has been of some spine-cracking lovin’. It’s shameful, really.
Random observation: I’ve recently noticed that my father sometimes switches on the TV only to set it on mute, and then proceeds to stare at the screen for long stretches of time – sans sound. I once asked for the rationale of this, but he just shrugged in response. I guess this illustrates the same kind of logic conveyed in the Lao She excerpt: when you’re that distracted/drained of mental stamina, all you want to do is space out and not process any kind of information, be it in the form of words or sound.
I blame time. But that’s just about the most useless kind of finger-pointing ever, because who doesn’t. It also tells me I’m not that different from my homework-light students, so hopefully this awareness will make me a more empathetic teacher.
Then again, if there’s not much adulthood is good for, at least it affords certain measures of authority. Which is why I’m looking forward to not receiving any ad hoc, in-class, excuse-cum-justification ‘Why I Didn’t Have Time to Write My Essay’ essays tomorrow. Heheheheh.
*Otium, a Latin abstract term, has a variety of meanings, including leisure time in which a person can enjoy eating, playing, resting, contemplation and academic endeavours.
[Photo credits: artinthepicture.com, brainpickings.org]