it’s never just about the weather

I do not want to bore you but I need to mention the weather. How it changes so often. Grey one day, yellow the next. Warm then cold then warm again. The brightness, the whiteness, the way the light shifts inside a room. And the way to compensate with the artificial. Our lamps. Our electric manipulation of the shadows.

I am reading this book wherein the main character feels inauthentic. He keeps trying to capture the feeling of being real. He goes to elaborate lengths using methods only possible due to the generous settlement he received following a traumatic accident. He wants to relive his body’s response to the trauma. The natural opioids flowing through his body. That tingling serenity. But he doesn’t know this. So he keeps trying. He exerts control in an effort to manifest a desired outcome. He too is concerned with how the light moves across a room. Yet he cannot control it for the Earth is always changing its position relative to the Sun. He cannot count on it always being the same. I want him to know that it’s all real. That it’s not a matter of recapturing a feeling of being real. That he must awaken to it.

In March the weather changed so often. Now it is almost April and I am learning to walk again. It has been a long and strange winter in more ways than the most obvious one.

I wonder if the world is really different. Is it really changing. Or do we just perceive it to be doing so. A person can pretend that it is not. Quite easy to do that. Everything is happening all at once and one can only choose to pay attention to so much of it. What will catch your attention. A call to action, perhaps. But there are no more manifestos. They cannot breathe in this information-choked environment. So maybe the world is different. Maybe it is different in how words have become both so much less and so much more important. Words spew out around us at light speed. Our eyes and ears are bombarded by them. Words are cheap and they pile up around our feet by day’s end. But there are a few diamonds in that pile. Which of these will we choose to hear? Which ones will we allow to penetrate the filters now affixed to our eyes. And how will we respond.

I continue to ruminate on the act of writing and what purpose it serves, if any. The consensus among writers I admire is that the point of writing is not to say something. As the writer of the book I refer to above quotes Kafka:

I write in order to affirm and reaffirm that I have absolutely nothing to say.

To take it to the furthest extreme, I’m reminded of Enrique Vila-Matas and his novel Bartleby & Co., which chronicles an array of “artists of refusal,” those who chose not to write. Now Vila-Matas clearly wrote his book with tongue firmly planted in cheek, and yet there are indeed writers who have chosen not to write. One can certainly see the appeal, especially when confronted with the dread of the empty page.

In his short story “The Library of Babel”, Jorge Luis Borges wrote:

The certitude that everything has been written negates us or turns us into phantoms.

Even taken out of context from a piece of fiction that sounds harsh. And I don’t agree (nor do I think Borges did). While this certitude can get me down, I refuse to be negated and I am certain of my realness. I am not a phantom. At one time I may have believed I was, but no longer. Writing for me now is an attempt to perpetuate this realness. Of figuring out a way to convey actuality in prose. Of removing the filters and exposing the words in all of their stark, fragile beauty. It is likely an impossible task, but it is the striving that fills the pages.

‘to reduce the fever of feeling’

Outside the wind howls. Inside a trio of snowmen converse in the vicinity of a conference of paper birds. Last night the ‘artsy’ neighbors continued their grand tradition of slamming doors and other unidentifiable objects against floors and walls for several hours between approximately midnight and the archetypal 3 AM hour. Result: current state of apathetic grogginess. Desire for absence of shared walls swells with each passing night of lost sleep.

Days less measureless than before. Crystalline structure of incipient routines inches out beyond the borders of a now worn and tarnished impersonation of L.B. in Rear Window. Except there never was anything even vaguely menacing to observe, only a sea of moment-waves rocking gently against the fragile hull of this origami sailboat.

Return to Pessoa’s words: no novelty in the universal, no comprehensibility in the individual. The old ruse of intentional obfuscation falls flat. But still the urge to fit words together roils inside. Maybe to do it, like Pessoa says, ‘to reduce the fever of feeling.’ Yet if all is unimportant (which it is), why bother describing any version of it. Unless perhaps to merely locate and handle the words themselves. To dive to the bottom, seeking words buried deep in a consciousness whose mirrored surface rests fathoms above undisturbed layers of sediment. Yes, perhaps it is for that reason: to extract anything worth contemplating from the granular level, to slip some small truth from the interstices and examine it from all sides, even if only to then return it unseen.

coleman dowell, from island people

You drive, walk, eat, look at television, read, and all the while, beyond you and the cozy circle created by your lady around herself and you, like the natural emanations of stars, other lives circle yours, seeds still winged and wind-borne, looking for sympathetic soil. You feel the juices and solids of your body in attempted rearrangement, or, more disturbing, making an effort to create a stillness that approximates death, beyond which the body does become soil, receptive to all wind-borne seeds. In a not especially prolonged stillness, as though no chances could be taken that you might decide to become perpetual motion, words fall out of the air, a random fall from which you might be tempted to make selection, and as you do not move, cannot, a string of words falls onto you, and from you, onto the paper: winter rye greening up, smoothing the old brown earth with a fine new plane: Carpenter Rye, neighbor.

–Coleman Dowell, Island People

george trakl’s snowy descent

Fascinating critical essay on Austrian poet Georg Trakl and the influence of cocaine and other intoxicants on his work.

(via Public Domain Review)

john hawkes: encounters with the abyss

I am imbued with the notion that a Muse is necessarily a dead woman, inaccessible or absent; that the poetic structure—like the canon, which is only a hole surrounded by steel—can be based only on what one does not have; and that ultimately one can write only to fill a void or at the least to situate, in relation to the most lucid part of ourselves, the place where this incommensurable abyss yawns within us.

            —Michel Leiris, L’Age d’Homme (published in English as Manhood)

The quote above is one of two epigraphs introducing John Hawkes’ short novel Travesty. It struck me as akin to my own feelings about writing. And in Hawkes’ case it is particularly apropos; for he “situates” the abyss like no other, and in reading him one gets the impression that he knows this is all he can do. An early American postmodernist, Hawkes wrote in an incomparable style, fashioning rich, mythic worlds peopled by characters that are so fully formed they seem real. His work often carries an air of menace, a peering over the edge of the abyss, and sometimes a dangling over it, held tenuously by the ankles. He leaves a lot unwritten, and part of the pleasure in reading him is the struggle to fill in these gaps.

I wasn’t familiar with Leiris, so I looked him up. I found this review of Manhood, which stoked my interest. Leiris was a French Surrealist writer and ethnographer who, in the reviewer’s words, “experimented with the consolidation of mythology, ritual and autobiography-writing.” In reading the review, I could see parallels between Hawkes and Leiris; it seems as if the latter could have been an influence on the former.

So one can write to fill a void, and in that respect, any subject is fair game. The trouble is that the abyss seems too overwhelming at times, too deep to fill and too hazardous to permit even the most cautious approach. Hurling a few sentences over the edge and listening for them to hit bottom feels like a lonely and futile exercise. In response, the temptation arises to shy away from it and instead dwell in more “lucid” inner locales.

Habit, the great deadener, must also be considered with regard to writing. But let’s take a step back for a moment and reflect on habit. Do you ever do something after not doing it for a long time and think: Wow, that thing is great! Why don’t I do that more often?? And yet this is the thing you were doing every day for months until you grew tired of it and stopped, thinking why do I bother? Habit, as a word, has a negative connotation. It’s always, Oh, that’s a bad habit. She picked up a bad habit. I’ve got to stop this bad habit. No one talks about good habits. It’s never, Oh, I recently picked up this good habit and it’s really helping me out. We need more talk about the value of good habits.

When it comes to writing, a moldy old adage dictates that one should write every day, no matter what the subject or form. This is considered a good writing habit. Just sit there and write and write and write for X amount of time each day and it will be fine. Yet many writers do not write every day. Some don’t write for months, until one day they fly into a manic state and write nonstop. It’s all about which practice works for you. But for those writers in this latter camp, those dry periods can run one ragged. Self-doubt creeps in and one wonders if the words will ever come again. Next comes a turning against the words. Hatred for words! Frustration at their failure to capture anything but a rapid-fade vapor trail of emotion and sensation; anger at their crude rigidity in the face of life’s constant flux.

Which returns us to Travesty. Because it seems to me that this strange little novel might be what a writer writes out of desperation when faced with one of these dreaded dry periods. The Leiris quote is the clue here, for an epigraph hints at the meaning of what is to come. The entirety of Travesty consists of one side of a conversation between the driver and one of the two passengers in a car speeding through the night in rural France toward a planned murder-suicide. Mostly it is a monologue by the driver, though the passenger does interject from time to time, which the reader discerns from the driver’s reactions. There is an absent woman who could be construed as a Muse for these two men; she is not dead, yet her distance from the story renders her near-dead. Even for Hawkes the scenario playing out in this novel is bleak, if not nihilistic. At a surface level, it reads as a piece composed on the brink of the void, a stream of dispassionate vitriol spit over the edge from dry, cracked lips.

It’s worth noting at this point that the second epigraph to the book is from Camus’ The Fall (a book which I have not read). Other reviewers have commented that Travesty reads as either homage to or parody of Camus. And in fact, in a 1976 interview¹ with Paul Emmett and Richard Vine, Hawkes mentions that he’d read The Fall a few months before several incidents that had partly inspired the book. While he evades admission that Travesty is indeed a “travesty” of The Fall, he does say he thinks “The Fall is in some way related to Travesty.” Of course, Camus also died in a car accident, which yields yet another Camus parallel to the book.

Returning to the void, though…in the final line of the conversation, while discussing Travesty, Hawkes says, “The ultimate power of the imagination is to create anything and everything—out of nothing…” Elsewhere in the interview, Hawkes is adamant that none of his fictional work is autobiographical (though he admits stray bits make their way into a text on occasion), and so the Leiris epigraph again rises up (“the poetic structure […] can be based only on what one does not have”). We cannot know if Hawkes was in a desperate dry period when he conceived the idea for Travesty. But it’s obvious that the text is at least in part concerned with this “ultimate power of the imagination.” For the narrator carefully constructs his murderous plan and describes it in calm, precise detail, just as Hawkes crafted the story and everything within it. And they are both empowered by their creations.

Maybe the “nothing” Hawkes refers to is equal to the void, or at least an alternate way of thinking about the void. Rather than a yawning abyss that swallows words (or prevents their creation) it should be thought of as a source for them. In this, the act of writing draws closer to Leiris’ idea of “situating” rather than “filling” the void. Situating the location of a void implies we have some control over it or at least knowledge of it, while filling a void seems an impossible task. If we know where the void is in relation to the “lucid part of ourselves,” it’s easier to manage our exposure to it, and even to draw upon it as a stimulus for creation.

_____________________________________________________________________

 ¹Emmett, Paul, and Richard Vine. “A Conversation with John Hawkes.” Chicago Review 28.2 (Fall 1976): 163-171. Accessed through JSTOR, 9 Jul. 2014.

guest post from j. krishnamurti

Is the observer different from the thing which he observes?

You, the observer, are observing the fact, which you term as being lonely. Is the observer different from the thing which he observes? It is different only as long as he gives it a name; but if you do not give it a name, the observer is the observed. The name, the term, acts only to divide; and then you have to battle with that thing. But, if there is no division, if there is an integration between the observer and the observed, which exists only when there is no naming – you can try this out and you will see – , then the sense of fear is entirely gone. It is fear that is preventing you from looking at this when you say, you are empty, you are this, you are that, you are in despair. And fear exists only as memory, which comes when you term; but when you are capable of looking at it without terming, then, surely, that thing is yourself. So, when you come to that point, when you are no longer naming the thing of which you are afraid, then you are that thing. When you are that thing, there is no problem, is there? It is only when you do not want to be that thing, or when you want to make that thing different from what it is, that the problem arises. But if you are that thing, then the observer is the observed, they are a joint phenomenon, not separate phenomena; then there is no problem, is there? Please, experiment with this, and you will see how quickly that thing is resolved and transcended, and something else takes place. Our difficulty is to come to that point, when we can look at it without fear; and fear arises only when we begin to recognize it, when we begin to give it a name, when we want to do something about it. But, when the observer sees that he is not different from the thing which he calls emptiness, despair, then the word has no longer a meaning. The word has ceased to be, it is no longer despair. When the word is removed, with all its implications, then there is no sense of fear or despair. Then, if you proceed further, when there is no fear, no despair, when the word is no longer important, then, surely, there is a tremendous release, a freedom; and in that freedom there is creative being, which gives a newness to life. To put it differently: We approach this problem of despair through habitual channels. That is, we bring our past memories to translate that problem; and thought, which is the result of memory, which is founded upon the past, can never solve that problem, because it is a new problem. Every problem is a new problem; and when you approach it, burdened with the past, it cannot be solved. You cannot approach it through the screen of words, which is the thinking process; but when the verbalization stops – because you understand the whole process of it, you leave it – , then you are able to meet the problem anew; then the problem is not what you think it is. So, you might say at the end of this question, “What am I to do? Here I am in despair, in confusion, in pain; you haven’t given me a method to follow, to become free.” But, surely, if you have understood what I have said, the key is there: a key which opens much more than you realize if you are capable of using it.

(From The Collected Works, Vol. V Ojai 4th Public Talk 24th July 1949)

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a knoblike process

Creeping crepuscule, descrescent light, harbinger of dreaded return to EST, where darkness dampens day’s early end. Decumbent drone diminishes daily, drowsy in the drawing room. Sip long from murky melodies, muddy froth spilling forth in rivulets, dirgeful delights diverging in drone’s ear canals. Mellifluous miasma of musical melancholia!

Dismantling of outdoor seating commences! Desperate attempts to affect staring at nothing continues. Doctor Chumply the Mouth Breather appears, Mickey D’s in hand, heart-attack-in-waiting, following with tiny aggrieved steps the trail of nitroglycerin tablets strewn across the decking. Take the elevator, not the stairs, for they are locked, despite the sign in the kitchen encouraging good health through stairs-taking. O, Dr. Chumply, what will become of you, will you follow those tablets to the Haunted Wood™ where the witch stokes her stove as she awaits your fleshly delights.

[But Christine, what of loneliness, standing there behind the invisibility cloak, always working, always writing, what did engagement mean for you, O Invisible Author, did you drape yourself in a duvet woven with words…]

Glossary

lumpfish: Any of various fishes of the family Cyclopteridae, especially Cyclopterus lumpus of North Atlantic waters, having pelvic fins united to form a suction disk and a body bearing prominent tubercles.

tubercle: A small, rounded prominence or process, such as a wartlike excrescence on the roots of some leguminous plants or a knoblike process in the skin or on a bone.

Quick now! Homophone challenge question: would you rather your words resonate or resinate. Think about it while staring into the clouds.

mole crickets

mole cricket (mōl) n. Any of various burrowing crickets of the family Gryllotalpidae, having short wings and front legs well adapted for digging and feeding mainly on the roots of plants. (Source: The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 3rd ed.)

External notes: Three species are invasive in the southeastern U.S. where they are noted garden pests. The Northern mole cricket is native to the eastern and central U.S., where it lives in grasslands, meadows, and prairie ecosystems.

Internal notes: After the fact, I heard about a cricket census in my geographic area. Citizens and scientists walked around one evening and noted all the singing crickets and katydids. I wonder if mole crickets sing when they are underground.

Anagrams into: Lick more, etc.

This was another fortuitous dictionary find. The dictionary continues to be a welcome source of solace. I want to crawl inside its pages and stroll around, maybe set up a lean-to near the binding and camp out for a while. There is so much to see! So many interesting little photos of wondrous things of every variety under the sun. So many new words to devour.

virginia woolf on words

How can we combine the old words in new orders so that they survive, so that they create beauty, so that they tell the truth? That is the question.

It is only a question of finding the right words and putting them in the right order. But we cannot do it because they do not live in dictionaries; they live in the mind. And how do they live in the mind? Variously and strangely, much as human beings live, ranging hither and thither, falling in love, and mating together.

Regrettably the audio recording of Virginia Woolf’s discussion on ‘the mysterious demands and duplicity of words’ has been removed from the BBC archives due to copyright restrictions. I found a transcript of the recording here, though, and it is a good read. Until the copyright police yank it down, there is also this excerpt of the recording on YouTube:

of dic·tion·ar·ies & den·tists

© 2012 S. D. Stewart

This row of dictionaries looms over me as I work, though I don’t have occasion to consult them as much these days. I used to do a lot more translation work as I cataloged. But my job has changed over the years, perhaps for the worse…it’s hard to say. I leave the dictionaries there to comfort me. I do still use the English one a lot (favored escapist technique). Sometimes the French and Spanish, rarely the Portuguese, and never the Swahili.

From the edge of the deep green sea, we open our arms, raise them high and trust, even when apart. Cut to end. Many nights, many years ago, I fell asleep to that. I like to think it informed my dreams. These days it’s everything.

It is Monday and I have a dentist appointment. Every time this happens I am unsettled by the bracketing of my life into six-month periods between dental appointments. I look back and wonder at the flatness of it all. Is this the right way to be going about it. Is it. Isn’t there some wormhole I could squeeze into instead. Some squirrely nautilus-shaped thing?

People are always leaving. And I miss them in a slow aching way. It’s been some time since I was the one leaving. A long time, actually, when you consider how often I used to leave before. It is doing something to the typewriter ribbon of time, I think. The dental appointments, the ink fading with each tap of the keys. The things we do at the changing of each season. Subtle adjustments absorbed, tarnishing the new, loss of notice to the details.

I like my dental hygienist. She is Eastern European—Polish, I think. I went to Poland once and in the short time I was there I found it to be a sad and beautiful country. That may have been due to my choice of activities while I was there. I like my hygienist because she’s quiet. I come in, we exchange cursory greetings, and then we get right down to work. Or rather she does; I just lie there and stare at the painting on the ceiling of a rowboat floating in the clear blue shallows. There is no banter. I hear the other hygienist and patient nearby chatting up a storm and I wonder how they can carry on such steady conversation while one of them has both hands in the other’s mouth. I wonder about my hygienist sometimes. Does she have a family, what does she do in her free time, that sort of thing. I often find myself wondering in this fashion about people with whom I have a narrow single-faceted relationship like this. But I would never dare ask her these things. And besides, most people’s lives are less exciting in real life than in imagined life. I hope they don’t take my hygienist away. At my last dentist they were always switching hygienists on me and it irritated me to no end. Then one time I totally spaced on my appointment because I always count on those reminder calls and they didn’t call this time. I realized about two weeks later or so that I’d missed it and that they’d never followed up. So I figured if they didn’t care that much about me as a patient that I’d find a new dentist. So far I’m pleased.

If I left, I’d have to get a new dentist and therefore, a new hygienist (I care less about the actual dentist because one rarely sees much of one’s dentist unless one’s teeth are terrible). If I left, someone else would claim my stack of dictionaries. If I left, these particular mosquitoes and their vile descendants would find someone else to bite. If I left, I’d be somewhere else, like I often think and dream about, but it wouldn’t be somewhere else for long. It would be like here, except there, because that is always what happens.

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