What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

Final Major Project: Book Research

Over the last few months I’ve been collecting a pile of books on my desk pertaining to the project, that has been growing at a faster rate than I’ve been able to read them. One of the pleasures of the research for this project has been the way that one thing leads tangentially to another, ever-widening the scope of the research, suggesting new directions and taking in a much broader range of perspectives than I’d envisaged when I originally set out on this work. 

I’ve recently finished reading:

Stoner by John Williams

Stoner by John Williams

Stoner by John Williams

Originally published in 1965, this book tells the story of William Stoner’s unfulfilled life. Born to humble beginnings in the 1890s on a farm in Missouri, the course of his life is irrevocably changed after he leaves home to go to college, resulting in a silent estrangement from his parents and a lifelong struggle to find his place in the grand scheme of life. The mastery in this story is in its ability to examine the interior world of Stoner, to describe the way in which he never truly feels comfortable in his own skin, how his life ultimately seems to comprise an accumulation of incidental happenings that surround him and confine him and eventually define him. He is trapped in an unsatisfactory marriage, he is unable to truly flourish at work or explore his academic passions, he resigns himself to a distant relationship with his daughter Grace and seems to settle for an existence where happiness is not to be expected, or even really sought for. There’s a strange nobility in Stoner, who meets events with a benign acceptance, never railing against the status quo and seeming to have a capacity to just carry on regardless. 

There is an incredible loneliness here. He is unable to connect with his wife, despite certainly wanting to at first. He is ultimately unable to connect with his daughter. He lives a loveless life, until a brief interlude later in life that is also ultimately doomed. There’s a resonance here about the way our lives can be so apparently full of accomplishments and yet be incredibly unhappy, in a way that’s almost not worth acknowledging, because we still just have to carry on either way. 

The idea of a loneliness that is not immediately apparent to the onlooker is important, both in terms of being an emotion that I’ve personally experienced but also in terms of the fact that it’s easy to envisage this as being a significantly under-recognised aspect of our modern urban lives, surrounded as we are by all the conveniences and community we could supposedly want.

Relating this back to my own work, I am challenged to think about how I represent the inner life better, either of myself or my subjects. In this book, this was of course done with words and this is possibly something that has some relevance to the presentation of this project also. Finding a way though to let the image suggest something of this inner experience will be key and will also hopefully mean that the images are not too obviously suggestive, which would weaken them to my mind. 

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver

Cover image by Todd Hido

Cover image by Todd Hido

I came to this book via Todd Hido, who has cited Carver as an influence of his work. This book, published in 1981, is a collection of short stories exploring various aspects of relationships and the motivations and passions that underpin how people are with each other. Carver writes with a sharp sense of observation of the human condition. He expertly illustrates the motivations of his characters without having to state them explicitly, their actions revealing what truly drives them, allowing the reader to know them in a way that their partners often seem not to. 

A common thread here for me is the idea that people often don’t say what they truly think or feel, but these feelings somehow find a way to emerge and affect the external world. We all carry baggage of course, things in our history that affect the way we interact with those around us, often without ever specifically identifying or expressing what those things are. Again there’s an illustration of the importance of the inner life here, the mysterious and often uncharted world that we all carry around with us, which plays such an important role in how we live. 

Increasingly I feel that this internal world which is unique to each individual, by definition imparts a degree of loneliness on all of us, alone as we are in this personal experience that no-one else can ever share no matter how close they are to us. This opens up a whole new avenue of potential research and the question is whether I can hope to represent this properly in the FMP work, or whether this is better explored in my future practice once the FMP is out of the way. 

Of course, there’s a degree to which my work is already reflecting my own inner world and while this had been largely happening outside of my conscious control (certainly until the point at which I started this MA course) I can see how important it is to bring (allow?) more of this world into my work, both for the purpose of self-exploration but also for the purpose of experimentation and to differentiate myself from other practitioners.