The past, the present and the future walk into a bar …

… and the bartender says, “this could get tense.”

The only stories we normally tell in present tense are jokes. It’s hard to stay in the present, either in telling a story or in daily life. I’ve been thinking about this because of two books I just read. One is Jack Kornfield’s The Wise Heart, a Buddhist approach to psychology. The other is a short literary novel, Escaping Barcelona, which is written in the present tense. The pairing got me thinking about awareness of the present moment, narrative in the present tense, the nature of what’s in our minds, and whether or not the stuff which fills our heads makes for good fiction.

My freshman seminar students read The Wise Heart with me. One said the most valuable section of the book for him was the one on Delusion, especially the topic of inattention. In his words, “I know there are plenty of moments where I walk around lost in thought, not focusing on my surroundings, to the point that I’m basically sleepwalking.” Mind full, but not mindful.

In class, we did a thought-counting exercise from The Wise Heart. As we noticed our thoughts and began to find space between them, the messy and nonlinear nature of thinking showed up. Thought is seldom focused in the ongoing flow of experience. If consciousness is a stream, the water is full of floating debris: the repetitive cycle of “top ten thoughts” and stuck songs, digressions into past and future, sudden awareness of bodily processes, or commenting and judging and craving, interspersed with moments of clarity and attention.

In a May 2013 article in the New Yorker, Giles Harvey examined stream of conscious in literature from its early roots to the present. (I encourage anyone interested in the topic to read the whole article at http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/minds-are-the-strangest-thing.) Here are few of his observations I found relevant to my recent readings.

How much thought can a novel contain before bloating, or bursting, occurs?

 Does the pleasure we get from seeing the mind at work, or the illusion of seeing the mind at work, cover the cost of the tedium involved in reading this? Art is meaningful because it is life-like without incurring the disadvantages of actually being life—that is to say, without being boring and formless. …

 Minds are weird, without a doubt. But not everything that goes on in them is worth our attention.

Author Henry Martin has described Escaping Barcelona as being written in first person, present tense, stream of consciousness. It is intimate and internal, but no more so than any literary novel written in the past tense. Most of the book doesn’t resemble the actual stream of consciousness. Martin usually shows inner processes fluidly embedded in a compelling story. Once in a while he stalls for a long rant or ramble from the nineteen-year-old narrator, Rudy—and like most mental chatter, Rudy’s inner material, while authentic, isn’t profound. Overall, however, Martin avoids tedium, and his book is neither boring nor formless.

To achieve this, he has to compromise the flow of the present tense, which at times compromises the flow of the story. For around two thirds of the book—not a continuous two thirds—the present tense is inconspicuous as events take place in dramatic sequences with the protagonist’s thoughts and feelings smoothly integrated into them and the clutter filtered out. Rudy encounters situations that provoke intense awareness—new places and people, relief after deprivation, and danger. Such moments could be told effectively in the present tense in poetry or a short story. In a novel, though, the story takes place over time, and the author has to skip over the dull parts and cover the gaps with summaries as he would in the past tense. Because of the present tense wording, I found myself jerked out of the plot by the awkwardness these transitions and summaries. Some of these shifts implied the perspective that what was being narrated in the present tense took place in the past. I want to be fully absorbed when I read, and this distanced me from the story.

In one of the last chapters of The Wise Heart Kornfield gives detailed descriptions of the inner experience of deep concentrated attention, a state of consciousness few of us will ever reach. “With concentration, no matter where we place our attention, it will stay focused.” He explores how this translates into concentration on bodily sensation, on a wide-angle perspective on our whole experience, or on a feeling like loving-kindness. After years of study, a practiced meditator might be able to stay in a state like this for an hour or two. Such a person’s stream of consciousness could stay in the present moment, and with that expanded wide-angle attention, could make a readable, continuous story. Except, a person with that level of wisdom wouldn’t make a good fictional protagonist. He or she wouldn’t make impulsive decisions such as Rudy makes that get the events in Escaping Barcelona started.

On p. 247 in The Wise Heart. Kornfield quotes a Jungian teacher and analyst. “There is in life a vulnerability so extreme, a suffering so unspeakable, that it goes beyond words. In the face of such suffering all we can do is stand in witness, so no one needs to bear it alone.” Escaping Barcelona portrays one young man’s suffering and vulnerability, and asks the reader to stand witness.

I cared about Rudy. He goes through hell without losing his humanity, struggling to maintain what he can of his integrity in a situation that challenges him just to survive. When he gets his big “aha” about himself, it’s a lesson worth learning, though it’s one the reader can see coming long before it hits him. I suspect most of our life lessons are like this. Other people can perceive that we need them, but we can’t until we suffer. The value of a story like this is the engagement of compassion. Escaping Barcelona has many strengths, but sometimes I found myself watching the author write instead of living the protagonist’s struggles. I reached the end impressed by Rudy’s resilience and wishing him well in the next stage of his journey, but I won’t be reading the sequels unless there should be special past tense editions.

I’ll read The Wise Heart again. It has made me stop more often to examine my inner noise and find the stillness beneath it, conscious in the present moment.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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