Everything as something else


When I read John Banville’s novel, The Sea, some years ago, one statement stuck in my head, when the narrator observed: ‘Everything now reminds me of something else.’ It stayed with me because this seemed increasingly my own case. If you have an associative memory, in which details tend to cling to others like burrs, as the sheer quantity of matter in that memory becomes unmanageable, it’s increasingly difficult to dredge up a thing cleanly. ‘To see the object as it really is’—a central concern for Matthew Arnold, meaning rather to remove the incrustations of orthodoxy or class habit or cultural assumption: perfection ‘can never be reached without seeing things as they really are; and it is to this, therefore, and to no machinery in the world, that culture sticks fondly.’[1]

How much of a problem is it if something read or heard or, increasingly, seen recalls something else, quotations, images derived from similar-sounding words, parallels and echoes? And, problem or not, is it in any case avoidable—or even desirable that it should be?

‘Now, this power of suggestion is one of the most mysterious properties of words. Everyone who has ever written a sentence must be conscious or half-conscious of it. Words, English words, are full of echoes, of memories, of associations—naturally. They have been out and about, on people’s lips, in their houses, in the streets, in the fields, for so many centuries. And that is one of the chief difficulties in writing them today’. This is Virginia Woolf, who gives the example of ‘incarnadine’, adding: ‘who can use it without remembering also “multitudinous seas”?’[2]


‘Incarnadine’ isn’t a word I’d use that often anyway, to be honest, but the essential case is made and plenty of other examples confirm it. The word ‘swaddled’, for instance, is now, I think, inextricable from images of the Christ-child, even in the minds of those least-versed in Christian imagery and symbolism. Yet that’s immediately complicated by the example of the word’s use that first springs to mind, T. S. Eliot’s ‘Gerontion’, where, to borrow a phrase, ‘the quotabilities swarm’:[3]

Signs are taken for wonders. ‘We would see a sign!’
The word within a word, unable to speak a word,
Swaddled with darkness. In the juvescence of the year
Came Christ the tiger


The poem is two and a half pages long; the commentary, twenty. ‘Swaddled with darkness’? ‘The Book of Job’ (38, 9) via a sermon of Lancelot Andrewes.[4]

But the Banville, yes. At some point, without foreboding or focused intention, but merely happenstance (how often and how genuinely are things ‘merely happenstance’?), I browsed my way back to it and noticed (of course) that what I recalled so vividly was not present at all. He had actually written: ‘…everything for me is something else, it is a thing I notice increasingly.’[5]

And (of course) this, or something like it, had cropped up before; many times, probably, but one occurs to me without searching or straining. Towards the end of To the Lighthouse, James, the Ramsay son to whom the first words of the novel are addressed, recalls what the lighthouse has meant to him in the past and compares it with the reality of the structure very close to him, as the boat journey to the rocks on which it stands is almost ended. And he understands that ‘the Lighthouse’ is neither one thing nor the other, not simply, not always. ‘For nothing was simply one thing.’[6] And in Orlando, a work notable above all, I suppose, for changeability, mutability and instability: ‘Everything, in fact, was something else.’[7]

Something else as well, I want to write. Everything turning out to be something completely different from what we believed it to be is too scary a thought; but multiplicity is fine, better than fine, desirable, no, indispensable.

World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.[8]

We are deluged with information now, much of it crazy, much of it incorrigibly plural—and much of it by routes where nothing is filtered or ordered. The internet is a wonderfully accurate reflection of this: a hundred or a thousand or a hundred thousand links brought up by a typed keyword or phrase. We may recognize a few of the sources and already have them arranged in a loose hierarchy in our minds; but in most cases we can’t tell without clicking on them, assessing, questioning. Many people assume, based on other contexts, that the ‘best’ links are at the top of the page. Alas, it ain’t necessarily so. And the question we ask of them can often not be answered since the lack of the information required to answer it was what prompted the original inquiry. I recall this from the novelist Nicholas Mosley: ‘The experiment is to discover the mechanisms of the brain. But the instruments are constructed by these mechanisms, so the operation is impossible.’[9]


Information overload. Recreation overload. Writing a letter to Lord Byron (as you do), W. H. Auden remarked:

Indeed our ways to waste time are so many,
Thanks to technology, a list of these
Would make a longer book than Ulysses.[10]

I remind myself that we’ve had eighty years since Auden published his poem to develop ways of wasting our time – and that my favourite edition of Ulysses is 933 pages.


[1] Culture And Anarchy (1869; edited by J. Dover Wilson, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969), 35.

[2] Virginia Woolf, ‘Craftsmanship’, in Selected Essays, edited by David Bradshaw (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 88 (referring to Macbeth, II, ii, 59).

[3] Hugh Kenner on Part II of William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, in A Homemade World: The American Modernist Writers (London: Marion Boyars, 1977), 194.

[4] The Poems of T. S. Eliot. Volume I: Collected and Uncollected Poems, edited by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue (London: Faber & Faber, 2015), 31, 474.

[5] John Banville, The Sea (London: Picador, 2006), 138.

[6] Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse (1927; edited by David Bradshaw, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 165-166, 152.

[7] Virginia Woolf, Orlando (1928; edited by Rachel Bowlby, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 138.

[8] Louis MacNeice, ‘Snow’, in Collected Poems, edited by Peter McDonald (London: Faber, 2007), 24.

[9] Nicholas Mosley, Natalie Natalia (Dalkey Archive Press: Victoria, Texas: 2006), 130.

[10] Auden, Letter to Lord Byron, Part II (first published in Letters from Iceland, his 1937 collaboration with Louis MacNeice), in The English Auden: Poems, Essays and Dramatic Writings, 1927-1939, edited by Edward Mendelson (London: Faber, 1977), 177.


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