An essay in pieces, on the ways in which we build by breaking and find beauty in fractures
In Autumn by Ali Smith, an attempt at a simile is abandoned halfway through: “The sycamore seeds hit the glass in the wind like – no, not like anything else, like sycamore seeds hitting window glass.” Language fails us in “real time” here, before our eyes. The spell is unwoven, and in its unweaving something else, something truer and deeper, more mysterious and yet perfectly clear, is revealed.
“Literature is a wound from which flows the indispensable divorce between words and things.” Carlos Fuentes knew this, and Ali Smith knows this, and it is why she wrote the failed simile into her book. In revealing this “mistake”, this failure, this undoing, the spell is cast again and more potently. Something true is discovered in something broken.
There is a moment in the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind in which the film breaks. The cinematic illusion is dispelled just for a moment, and any objective critique in a reductively technical sense would have to count it as a failure. Yet it is one of my favourite moments in a movie made up of brilliant moments.
While filming his leads, Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet, director Michel Gondry learned that a circus was on parade nearby. Clowns tumbling and elephants stomping down a main road would be a perfect addition to his dreamscape vision, and so the crew and actors raced off to witness the spectacle.
Jim Carrey, in persona as an otherwise shy but momentarily goofy man, throws his jacket over his head and uses the sleeve to imitate the elephant’s trunk. Here, Gondry drags Winslet out of the way, hiding her so that as “Joel” emerges from under his jacket, Jim has no clue where his co-star has gone and is, for a moment, honestly lost. The actor – not the character – looks directly into the camera, just for a heartbeat, and for that split second we see genuine uncertainty. A unique intimacy emerges between film and viewer in this glance. It reaches directly through the screen to reach us in a way that Carrey’s (surprisingly) brilliant performance is otherwise unable to capture.
This brief look into camera is called breaking the fourth wall, and it usually brings the viewer out of the story by reminding us awkwardly that this is a film, a fiction, that whatever you have been feeling has been for something that doesn’t exist in the way the movie wants to fool you, temporarily, into believing it does. And yet, when it happens unscripted here, the editor had the insight not to cut what a coldly-objective (read: less creative) editor would have cut as a bad take, and the result is a small gem in an already special movie.
A movie purchased when there were still stores in town that sold DVDs; the wrong disc placed carelessly into the plastic case by an underpaid boy-man who looked neither at me nor the movie he clicked into place; a decision to watch the movie before returning it: The Squid and the Whale (instead of what, I don’t remember), which I never return but watch many more times.
In the library, the wrong book shelved beside the book I am looking for, the wrong book being not only out of alphabetical sequence but also in the wrong category, and the wrong book turns out to be the perfect book (albeit not for the project the original “right” book was for). I have just discovered a new topic that fascinates me.
My thumb, too large and too unpractised at touchscreen, taps to listen to a particular episode of a podcast and accidentally gets the episode just below. I listen to it anyway, because I need a change from struggling to work out my next essay (my only idea being something stale about cinematic genres). Nicholas Christakis tells Sam Harris that when we fallible humans work with imperfect bots – AI designed to reliably fail from time to time, as opposed to those intended to follow an algorithm with fantastical precision – we are better at solving problems. The reason seems to be that mistakes shunt us off of our unimaginative paths of patterned behaviour. I have a new idea for an essay, and I begin to write.
The city of Guanajuato, Mexico, is surrounded by mountains. The sprawling expanse of buildings rises up and down along the contoured sides of this natural bowl, creating waves of coloured squares and rectangles, because each building is painted in a vibrant pink, or red, or blue, or green. It’s as if a cosmic child, playing in the oceanic sky that stretches over the city, has scattered across the slopes one of those watercolour sets with flat squares of paint.
Among the maze of buildings run callejones, narrow alleys between two walls or houses that haven’t quite managed to touch. Down one of these passages I find a house painted red. It has a crack running horizontally, twitching up and down, careening jaggedly along one of its walls. The line has been highlighted by yellow paint, applied with a wide brush that has followed this fracture like a finger following a roadmap.
I never discover what the intent is behind this augmentation, but it has to be something like, Let’s turn this unavoidable disfigurement into a thing of uniqueness, a creative choice out of something inflicted on our home. I walk this way whenever I am in the area, just to slow down and trace the break with my eyes, sometimes the tips of my fingers, sometimes standing back and taking in the whole of this fracture, its history, and the contrast between the yellow and the red, what is broken and what is not. It is beautiful in a way no other house, lacking this particular feature, can be.
Something had happened here. This wall knows a secret. This crack is a reminder. This painted line is an acknowledgement, a bow of the head, tip of the hat, glass raised to what the wall knows and the crack reminds us of, and we learn from it. Make beauty from old damage and build better next time.
“The gods weave misfortunes for men,” we are told in Homer’s Odyssey, “so that the generations to come will have something to sing about.” In witnessing the breaking and the breakages – the effect and the cause in real-time – of others, our learning need not only be first-hand. What I learn from my damage I hope to pass on to others, as I hope to learn from others in turn. This is what great art, and especially tragedy, offers.
“The novelist demolishes the house of his life and uses its bricks to construct another house: that of his novel.” To Kundera’s observation I might add that the existential demolition may not always be self-inflicted. The life may crumble, may be knocked down by tragedy and other external forces, but still the writer sifts through the rubble and finds what is worth using to form something new.
“What is a poet?” Kierkegaard asks. He answers himself:
“A poet is an unhappy man who holds deep anguish in his heart, but whose lips are so formed that when the sigh and cry pass through them, it sounds like lovely music.”
This means that when we tell the poet to speak again, the painter to paint once more, the writer to write again, we are saying, “May new sufferings befall you”. It is a terrible thing we need, but we do need it. The artists are, in this respect, our finest teachers. They show us what most of us hide, even from ourselves. They refine the chaos of tragedy into something more intelligible. They make their attempts publicly and, therefore, are not able to fail in private. We watch them rise and fall. The artists are those who do so willingly, again and again.
“The world breaks everyone,” Hemingway once noted, “and afterward many are strong in the broken places.” The ways in which we can break are as varied and numerous as the ways in which we can mend and strengthen from those breaks. It might be that the repair is physically stronger than that which it repairs. It can be that the injured person knows better how to avoid such damage next time, a fix of its own. It is often that the damaged person learns to cope with such trauma and so is broken a little less, becoming a little more resilient, with every fracture.
“What does not kill me,” as everyone knows, though fewer know that Nietzsche first penned it, “makes me stronger.” As a bald statement of our humanly situation, it is obviously false. Many things can weaken us, and weakened enough, an accumulation of things that don’t kill me on their own might do me in.
Taken as intended, however, as a pose to strike against victimisation, an affirmation of resilience against the inevitable suffering of existence, the aphorism fairs much better. If it does not kill me, it can break me – but I can become “strong in the broken places”.
There is more to our quote from Hemingway. Having stated that life breaks most of us, he goes on to write that “those that will not break [the world] kills”:
“It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.”
To be unbreakable is not to be strong; it is what ends you. Architecture built to resist regular earthquakes is constructed with “bend” built in, with the ability to move to accommodate some shake and shift. The structural integrity of a skyscraper is made more durable by having the in-built ability to “bow” several feet in any direction, like a swaying tree, to work with rather than fight against the inevitable wind that will blow it. Buildings made to stand firm, built of solid materials like concrete, are often the first to crack – rather than bend – and fall.
Totalitarian systems do not allow for bend and insist on being solid enough to hold the world still rather than move with its trembles and shakes. But the world moves on, life changes, fractures emerge. Ideologies of perfection – political despotisms and religious fundamentalisms – cannot acknowledge these cracks, because perfection is timeless and non-contextual, so it is the same everywhere and for everyone. Fractures reveal the dissonance that denies uniformity.
Citizens see through the facade, the coat of paint over the fractures, and will point them out to each other, first in private and then publicly. Russian citizens saw the contradictions between Soviet propaganda and the realities of the everyday. They may not have wanted to see them in the beginning, because who wants to be the first to spot the flaw in the masterpiece or the rotten fruit in the edenic garden? But the cracks continue to show. Others are heard murmuring about these unsightly divisions. The fractures continue to grow. A book is published, banned, burned, turns up again and again, is read in private and then in public. The fractures grow and show something behind the surface they crumble. Another way of being stands behind, and it can be reached sooner if the citizens help the breaking up, if they take up hammers and fists and strike at the cracks to smash what remains of the wall, the ideology, the unmoving edifice.
“One of the most important elements in the evolution of human institutions is the emergence of the difficult customer within the system itself, the radical who starts to question its very being, the reformer who calls for changes in the way it runs.”
These are the words of Richard Holloway, who was once the Bishop of Edinburgh. His deep ties to the church were fractured by the conflict between personal convictions and theological dogmas, until a split opened between the man and the institution, like the widening blade of an axe tearing open the log. He is a difficult customer for whom many, not least myself, are grateful.
Socrates, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, all difficult customers. The insurrectionist within the institution who challenges ideology bears the voice that most needs to be heard. They are the Socratic demon, the conscience. When they are wrong, we learn in what way we are right, from which more can be discovered; when they are correct, we can cease to be mistaken.
“Truth is rarely simple and seldom obvious, which is why mature institutions recognise the importance of conflict and disagreement.”
In The Madness of Crowds, Douglas Murray explores those topics of contemporary interest (more like obsession) that often come into the rubric of “social justice”. In his book, they fall under the four headings of “Gay”, “Women”, “Race”, and “Trans”. Their most vocal proponents allow for no “imperfection” in discussing such subjects. To use the wrong word or context or cadence is to break something that, in order to exist, cannot concede malleability: orthodoxy.
He writes in his introduction that there is a piece of military equipment once called “The Giant Viper”, now “The Python”. The long and short of it is that this equipment self-detonates in a minefield, clearing something of a relatively safe path through. Murray hopes his book will do the same, intentionally tripping some switches and setting off socio-political IEDs that catch the unwary or unsavvy off-guard.
Those who do not mind speaking up can speak up loudly to benefit those less willing or able to voice questions and concerns. Those who demand perfection will attempt to break these speakers publicly – it must always be public to dissuade further dissent – and in doing so will reveal that which they seek to conceal: fractures in the consensus.
The tectonic plates on which our world, our continents, our countries and our lives reside, shift today just as they have always shifted. They will continue to fracture, then slide, grind, and collide to transform the face of the planet.
About 175 million years ago (give or take some millions of years) the supercontinent we now call Pangea began to break up. The land mass shifted and crumbled, subsiding beneath the oceans here and rising up as new mountains there, and ultimately spread out into the continents we know today, which are still in motion.
In 2017, Britain voted to leave the European Union. A tiny nation fragment of the disassembled Pangea decided to splinter off from a much larger continental grouping. The UK’s decision to break away gave birth to the term “Brexit”, coincidentally a slant rhyme with “Breaks It”.
Not so long ago, the UK held a General Election. Many who, in oblique or broad terms, are near what some would call “my side” on political matters bemoaned the “disgrace” of the election result and the division the winning party would cause the nation, and spoke openly of their shame at their own country and/or county.
The world fractures as it always has. We cannot stop it. Once something breaks, we can only waste our time lamenting the loss, or we can try to do something productive with what is left. Perhaps we can fix the breakage, repair the fracture, or at least limit the damage and prevent the cracks from spreading.
Or perhaps we can make something new with the pieces left over.
Things will continue to break, but we don’t have to be broken.
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• Autumn, Ali Smith (2016)
• Diana, Carlos Fuentes (1996)
• Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, dir. Michel Gondry (2004)
• #100 – Facing the Crowd, Making Sense [podcast] (2017)
• The Odyssey, Homer (circa 8th century BC)
• The Art of the Novel, Milan Kundera (2003)
• Either/Or, Søren Kierkegaard (1843)
• A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway (1929)
• Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche (1889)
• Doubts and Loves: What is Left of Christianity, Richard Holloway (2001)
• The Madness of Crowds, Douglas Murray (2019)