Stasis. I first came across this word in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. As some words do, this has found place in some corner of my mind. And like some stranded flotsam, comes bobbing up to the top of my mind often. The ‘often’ has become ‘more often’ these days.
What does Stasis actually mean? I’ll look it up and add it here in a moment, but then there’s something that it means which is how I perceive it, and perhaps it only means so for me. Isn’t that so with everything? Aren’t things or people something in our head, and something in the real world. How much of our lives do we live inside the head, exploring the depths and shallows, going through the flotsam and recreating reality in our head? One would think that the more we encounter reality, the more we correct the internal landscape, bringing it closer to reality. But what if we do not encounter enough reality? How disparate can the actual world be from the world inside your head?
Anyhow, Stasis is defined as “a period or state of inactivity or equilibrium”
Equilibrium. Isn’t it something desirable? Yes, perhaps.
The equilibrium where life is perfect outside, and the dreams or vision is perfect in your head. Is that an equilibrium? By doing anything, you introduce imbalance, and things might get off balance. Then what? The equilibrium is so fine that you get caught in a really long stasis. Things are perfect in your head, why encounter reality?
We grow up with so much baggage. The way we perceive reality as human beings. The way we look at life. The different weights we assign to stuff. The way we seek from life; from ourselves. We seek, or we find? (K would say we find. But then he would also say, don’t stop seeking). I feel like I am caught in an EE Cummings poem.
You can spend your life unlearning, getting rid of the mental baggage, and not be able to get back to a clean slate. A mirage, this clean slate.
What is interesting is in Joyce’s book, the word is juxtaposed against “kinesis”. That is where I would like to be – Action. Kinesis. Movement. Motion. Working hard at something. Working so deeply and absorbed with something that the sense of self is forgotten. Such that the internal landscape and the external reality are perfectly aligned and one. When there is all foreground, the moment, and no background internal chatter, commentary or colours.
I manage to get there sometimes when I am trying to master a new skill. Say, new song on the keyboard. All that is then perceived is what I am trying to learn, and everything else is pushed out. It is like meditation. Or as a newbie tennis player, when I consciously remind myself to reset after every ball. There is nothing else then, the reminding and the ball. Or taken in by a curious pursuit until I find all the answers. Or a good book which creates such a reality that your personal internal realities are muted.
I then forget myself, or my internal landscape. Then all that is, is the real. There is no conflicting reality.
So, that is my objective. To get to kinesis. And to that self-forgetting, absorbed state of alignment of realities.
To do so, may be let go of the equilibrium for a little while, and seek kinesis. Once there is kinesis, a new equilibrium, a new stasis will follow?
Since we are talking about Portraits. And since this is about books, not an analysis of my internal landscape, I wish to write about my recent read, “The Portrait of a Lady”.
I tried reading this masterpiece by Henry James a few years ago. But I guess I had little time to read then. And I felt this book needed not some little time everyday but more time in a chunk. It is a portrait, and the more you can get in, soak in, the more you feel like and with Isabel Archer.
I bought this during my recent holiday. A small, sea-side book shop full of popular novels, and very few classics on display. And the only book I had taken for the holiday was Homo Deus (with high hopes. Sapiens was interesting, but Homo Deus gets too broad brush and over-simplified way of looking at things. Not fun enough for a reading by the pool). I was seeking something more fun. So, I picked up a gilt-edged copy of ‘The Portrait of a Lady’.
I feel like I am a latecomer to classics. Most people have read these books when they are young, and so the contexts, the actors, the situations presented in the book are already part of the inner landscape and popular culture, meanings of which perhaps I have missed. (but you never know what you miss, do you?). I have come to them late. And the encounter is a little different.
Similar to other Henry James stories I have read over the last couple of years, this is another international story. (I am referring to the collection “Daisy Miller and Other Stories”). Here too, in Isabel Archer, we have an American young woman in England and Europe in the late 1800s. There are a few enriching layers to the portrait. First, the heroine herself, who is of independent thought (given the times she lives in), open, curious, full of life. What she seeks from life, and the way she plans to live it, is her own, not like most other women at that time. And then there is this layer of circumstance, of interesting encounters that she has. Eventually, she takes a long-term call in a short-term mood, and finds her life limited, bounded, checked, reduced.
It is an interesting premise. Create an interesting character, bring them up interesting encounters, and how would they react? And it is done masterfully without judgement of her choices and her behavior to a large extent. With every choice, she grows. Even if her life becomes restricted, and fiercely quashed by the unspoken tyranny of Gilbert Osmond.
Great for the writer to envisage and bring about. But not so for the cousin (Ralph) who provides the means to Isabel to experiment. Watching from the sidelines, as if the only purpose Isabel existed or moved forward was to satisfy the entertainment desires of the rich, infirm cousin.
She seeks to soar. But then she settles. Or she doesn’t think she settles but believes that she is doing something which is bigger than her. Or as she puts it –she can’t escape her fate. (Of being unhappy? Of always yearning?)
I remember when I read it a few years ago, I left reading when I came to the part when she decides to marry the moody, dark, conniving, oppressive Osmond. So unlike Jane Austen. If it were Jane Austen, there would have been perhaps a few plot complications, but eventually the happily ever after would have happened with Lord Warburton. But then we wouldn’t be talking about the book. The reason it is interesting is because of these flawed characters, and their flawed choices and whims.
The book moved me. I quite enjoyed reading it. You get to think like Isabel Archer, with her follies and foibles. Stayed in my head for a while. I even looked up the movie. Watched it for a bit. But since the period drama movies I need to watch on my own (K wouldn’t be bothered with such), didn’t get enough time to move it forward. It is difficult to see Isabel Archer make those choices. And also, the undertones which are not so apparent in the book are brought out quite explicitly in the movie (1996 movie).
A fine read. Worth a re-read.
I looked up the E E Cummings poem that I am supposedly caught in. Here goes:
in time of daffodils (who knowthe goal of living is to grow)forgetting why, remember howin time of lilacs who proclaimthe aim of waking is to dream,remember so (forgetting seem)in time of roses (who amazeour now and here with paradise)forgetting if, remember yesin time of all sweet things beyondwhatever mind may comprehend,remember seek (forgetting find)and in a mystery to be(when time from time shall set us free)
forgetting me, remember me
I would think it is a beautiful poem to be caught in.