In Praise of Modesty
The writer was a tumbler. If not, then a tinker, carrying a hundred pots and pans and bits of linoleum and wires and falconer’s hoods and pencils and…you carried them around for years and gradually fit them into a small, modest book. The art of packing. — Michael Ondaatje, Anil’s Ghost
I think of this quotation a whole lot. I think a whole lot of this quotation. Blake’s interview of Andrew Zornoza made me think of it, the 14 years in the making part. My friend working around the clock on what will be a short non-definitive but brilliant biography made me think of it. Avatar and not wanting to see a movie that proposes to break new ground, that promises to change the way I think of the movie experience, made me think of it. Immodesty is dishonesty. To think we’ll never read another book after this one. To think we’ll never see another movie, or that ever after we’ll see movies differently. To think we won’t amend and mend and expand and retract our thoughts about art-making because this time we’ve gotten it right. What hubris.
This is not to equate modesty with small physical size. This is not to equate modesty with lack of ambition. To pack, select, winnow, whittle, fit, shape, pat, balance, attend, await, and weigh the materials of life and art to make a book is honest hard work–backbreaking, eye-straining, near-impossible work, and the reward always comes too late.
A quote like this gives postmodernity a good name. To admit to sweeping up shards, gathering scraps of broken meat, to allow that one book can’t hope to contain the Whole, or even any one whole. The days of circumnavigating the globe, the days of the brave frontier have passed. Foreclosed. We have now vaster materials, but smaller places to put them in. What possibility, what call.
Tags: michael ondaatje