The Woal of It

Friday December 8, 2006


Recently I’ve been reading several novels by Russell Hoban, probably one of the most under-rated of writers in English. His novel Riddley Walker, first published in 1980, is perhaps his best known, and is an extraordinary book, set in a post-apocalyptic landscape in which the English language is rubbed down into something crude, blunt and expressive. In the afterword to my edition of the book, Hoban says that the business of writing is “a matter of being friends with your own head”, an expression that I love – and that I think could equally well apply to meditation. Looked at this way, it is not so much a question of mastering our minds – this seems to me to be a fruitless task – as befriending them; and in befriending them, they in turn tend themselves become friendlier, slightly more manageable beasts.

Befriending your own head is, I think, about working from the inside of one’s experience, rather than imposing a grand scheme upon experience from the outside. Such grand schemes, I suspect, never come to much. Because they are based upon an idea about how the world should be, rather than an attentiveness to how the world actually is, they tend to cause at least as much suffering as they quell. I used to sit in meditation attempting to get somewhere, and this somewhere was always a place that I had conceived of abstractly, a place that was not here but that I assumed existed over some further horizon. This, I think, is why – for at least the first year or two – I found meditation frustrating. I credit my change of heart and of approach to Heidegger, the thinker who led me – in the due course of time – to the study of philosophy. Heidegger’s thinking, although it can seem abstruse, seems to me to be an attempt to break with abstraction and to return our thinking to a closer attention to everyday experience and to the question of what it is like to be here at all. He removes us from our dreams of some kind of God-like perspective upon the world, and puts us right back in the middle of things. In Riddley Walker Hoban has his hero reflecting upon the impossibility of getting this view from above upon our existence, precisely the kind of view that Heidegger tries to resist:

If you cud even jus see 1 thing clear the woal of whats in it you cud see every thing clear. But you never wil get to see the woal of any thing youre all ways in the middl of it living it or moving thru it. Never mynd. (p. 186)

So these days, when I meditate, I have given up even on seeing 1 thing clear. I am resigned to the fact of being in the middl of it, moving thru it. But, as Riddley would say, never mynd. Here, in the thick of things, it is enough that I am – little by little – making friends with my own head.

Image by Hugovk

# · christy lee-engel

Dear Will,

Goodness! I had no idea that Russell Hoban had written such intriguing-sounding novels — I know him as the author of one of my, and my children’s, favorite books, “Bread and Jam for Frances”! I will certainly look for his other books now — thank you for the pointing out.

Mmmm — “making friends with your own head,” a wonderful phrase. Part of the process of, or maybe it’s the same thing as, making friends with life, and the whole thing.

warm regards,

# · Will

Yes indeed, Christy. I first knew RH as a children’s writer – I loved the Brute Family books and The Mouse and His Child when I was a kid. But his adult books are every bit as good.
And yes, making friends with life is, I think, the bigger story. Or reconcilation, an idea I’m thinking about a lot lately.
Thanks for the comment.
Best wishes,


# · Sam

I agree. How could there be anything but this very moment, these aching legs, that sound of traffic, these whirling thoughts?

I only know Russell Hoban as the author of Fremder, the freaky sci-fi novel. He must be a man of many talents.

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