Sickness and Self

Courtesy Stephen Sweeney/geograph.org.uk on Wikimedia Commons.

Wow: let’s talk, not about any particular book, but about the very bizarre frustration of being more or less incapable of reading (much less writing) for almost a month. Just before Christmas, I got slammed with what started as allergies, moved into a full sinus onslaught, and morphed in very wily fashion into viral wonders the likes of which I really hadn’t experienced in twenty years.

The physical illness itself was bad enough; among other things, it meant I was banned from flying back home, and spent two days in Amtrak’s tiniest sleeping car, with just my germs for company, getting back to my own bed. But the truly alarming amounts of apathy that accompanied it—the lack of desire for anything whatsoever, the complete absence of willpower or ability to perform any mental functions beyond the remedial level—may have been just as frustrating, due, I think, to the fact that the normal I with whom I was so familiar, so accustomed, had vanished entirely. And yet, there I still was, some vegetative creature whom I would have taken for a doppelgänger had I not so obviously been trapped inside of it.

This normal I is, of course, a compulsive reader; it’s simply part and parcel of who I am, and always have been, ever since I learned as a toddler to decipher letters and words. Take that characteristic away, and everyone remotely close to me will declare that what stands before them is something other than the person they know.

So that alienation from self was one thing. But I’m starting to think as well that this last bout of illness was so emotionally tough not just due to said alienation—but also to the vast amounts of disembodied conversation, normally carried on on a daily basis with other writers, or at least with their thoughts and words, that suddenly disappeared, and remained missing for so long. In being forcefully and lengthily removed from engagement with print, I was also being removed from an entire community. No wonder I felt so disoriented, and in an indescribably lonely way at that.

I’m beyond thankful that I didn’t lose any of my senses, truthfully speaking—but in the face of all of them being noticeably dampened in some way, the fear of such a loss, which has a permanent home in the far reaches of my mind, was put on alert, and even if only in attenuated fashion, reached through the dense miasma that had set up shop within and around me.

Here’s the miracle, though: even though I’ve still got some remnants of disease to kick out of my system, last night I finished a not-too-challenging book that’s been begging for the last month for my attention. I’ve found that usually, as soon as I’ve recovered from illness, I forget with amazingly quick ease what that particular form of impairment was like. Maybe it’s just that I’m not totally out of the woods yet—but the process of settling comfortably into a few of this book’s pages was noticeably low on comfort. I’m not sure how long this cold will hang around, or how long it’s going to take me to get back to the usual me—but I have a sneaking suspicion I won’t so easily consign this latest germ battle to the dustbin of memory.

 

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Holding On, In Spite of It All

It took a lengthy plane ride to do it, but I finally finished Robert Coover’s The Public Burning. I’d searched it out for years, but always decided the first editions I inevitably came across were too pricey to risk it. After all, the one short story I’d read by Coover, included in a collection of new writers during the ‘70s, did little to impress, and much to offend me, joking as it did the whole time about the possibilities of rape. But enough reliable sources had declared this huge tome a must-read cult classic, and so when I finally caught it hanging out in a pop-up bookstore in a subway tunnel—for $3.50!—I decided to go for it.

Look, I respect the experimental, or at least the so-called non-traditional; Infinite Jest, for example, has never been topped for me. But stretching out a few days’ worth of sort-of alternate history, using what might best be called a frantic style and a hell of a lot of referencing of now-forgotten government figures, becomes pretty tedious pretty quickly.

I won’t hesitate to raise a hue and cry over Americans’ lack of historical consciousness—but Coover’s book is a prime example of how to date a work and make it if not inaccessible, at least much less effective forty years down the line than it would have been to a really well-informed audience at the time of its publication, or maybe even the time in which said publication’s narrative took place–i.e., in the early 1950s. Having Richard Nixon as your protagonist, as well as some of the larger figures that surrounded him, isn’t problematic; it’s the constant references to junior senators, early film starlets, long-dead department stores, defunct products and their forgotten ad jingles,… Really, it’s not that hard to capture the absurdity of American public taste or pastimes—but trying to do so by way of the very ephemeral materials and personalities with which it’s concerned makes that message at least a little fuzzier around the edges for generations who’ve never, and for good reason, heard about half the items or flashes-in-the-pan that feature in Coover’s fictional universe.

And I’ll have to say, his deified Uncle Sam hasn’t aged well. At one point, the rootin’-tootin’ stereotype may still have been valid—but even in the paternalistically mythologized “heartland,” I don’t think such a character, even as an outsized absurdity, is believable today. My preliminary assertion is that that’s a good thing—but I also have no idea what sort of asinine idol we could replace him with, except for certain actual figures currently in power.

But I’m straying now from the general assessment of the book, which I realize took a great deal of time and creative effort to produce, and if nothing else, I can appreciate that fact. For all the work that went into it, though, you’d hope that the result would have much more staying power. Then again, the pieces that really last—and by “really,” I probably mean more than a hundred years, maybe—are few and far between. Shouldn’t I, then, be celebrating the fact that something written in the 1970s is still being referenced, much less read, even if only in tiny circles, especially in an age of disposable information and barely-there attention spans?

I suppose so. But if I’ve learned one thing from history, it’s that most uniquely identifiable things and people, if not the events in which they took part, will pass from the collective memory. You may have your own feelings about that fact, but as I’ve probably mentioned before, the realization of our fleeting nature is sort of comforting to me. Maybe in the end what I find so frustrating, then, about Coover’s approach to The Public Burning is what seems like his determined attempt to fight against that evanescence of all (or most) things. I’d like to know, forty years after this dense piece of not-quite-historical fiction came out, what the author thinks about it now, and whether or not he’s still struggling to maintain his insistent grip on the fugitive things of this world.

One of the Blocks in Writer’s Block

Throughout much of my writing life, I’ve been stymied by the same problem: being so convinced that I still need to do just a little more research on a given topic before I can even begin putting ideas down about it on paper. Oh, sure, I can scribble as much in my journal about it as I’d like, scrawl out brief flashes of insight onto a scrap of paper that’ll get added to an entire folder-full (or let’s be honest: just a semi-contained pile) of similar notes. But making the definitive step, actually, officially starting on the real project itself, the one that’s to be done for a particular purpose, person, reader, to be shaped into a cohesive whole and finished by a certain deadline—well, it’s that final step that hardly ever comes.

Ferdinand Hodler, Der Lesende, from Wikimedia Commons

I’m hardly alone; literature is full of these sorts of anguished procrastinators who allow themselves to believe that their busywork is a true, necessary part of constructing their project—while knowing full well, in some obscure inner soul-niche, that they’re simply terrified of making that leap, even if they don’t quite know why. There is, maybe most famously, Middlemarch‘s Mr. Casaubon, the dried-up clergyman who tries to suck his much-too-young bride along with him into the stasis of unadmitted insecurity. And it’s not really a total fit, but every time I think of Elias Canetti’s Kien (who does, after all, occasionally publish something), I’m tempted to put him into this category; his sour reclusivity would seem to place him in the same existential neighborhood as Casaubon; the two would probably nod approvingly to each other, before withdrawing back into their respective lairs and particular forms of violence they enact upon anyone in their orbit.

But the question remains: why this hesitation? Why the fear of speculating, of working things out, as a form of research? Investigation takes place, after all, not only through quiet reading, viewing, and the like–but also, and essentially, through interaction with the ideas, guidance, and opinions of others—those (sometimes) undifferentiated others who are assumed to be the beneficiaries of our work, the ones with whom we want, with our writing, to interact on some level in the first place.

Accusations of ignorance, of not doing one’s work, by other readers is only part of it. I know very well that we can’t please everyone, whether all or even some of the time—and writing for everyone, you’re probably writing limp pablum for no one. Maybe it’s partially this: that if the research is done, that if everything’s read that can possibly be read, you have no further excuse not to cast yourself into the prospective fray something you say may engender. If there’s something left to read or learn, on the other hand—well, you can’t be fully blamed if something you assert isn’t totally up to snuff; after all; you can pawn the imperfections off on an excusable ignorance, a temporary state of affairs not necessarily inherent to your very person. But once you’ve reached the adequacy of an expert, there might just be something in you that won’t allow for a good synthesis, or an ability to get your knowledge across. You might, in other words, just be a bad writer and/or thinker, pure and simple, and if that’s the case, well then, you’d better find an entirely different calling. That is to say, you’d better re-devote your entire life to something so central to your heart that you’ll while away years and risk healthy human contact (or even your own health, period) to succeed at it.

What are the chances of that happening, though: finding two all-encompassing passions in one lifetime?

So maybe. But then I—we, my fictional or all-too-real compatriots—need to put my foot down once and for all, and decide what’s more important: assured failure that lives beneath the guise of hope, or a meaningful attempt at success that actually lives out that hope, regardless of its outcome.

A Minor Letdown

For the past day and a half– and for another thirty-six hours or so to come– I’ve shut myself away in an inaccessible rental, with no form of transportation and nothing remotely interesting available to me, other than writing, reading, yoga, and walking. It’s a practice that’s purposefully involved limited exposure to all things digital and/or glowing, all things capable of connecting me in one way or another to the concerns and temptations and distractions that finally grew too overwhelming to deal with.

I mentioned “limited exposure,” the exception being anything that serves my aim of writing. Most of said activity has taken place with pen and notebook, and has filled nearly twenty pages thus far. But I’ve also turned on the computer when I’ve needed a prodding change of process or venue, and so here I am, allowing myself one of those deviations from regular procedure.

The occasion? A misread phrase I found this afternoon, while reading Robert Lowell’s For the Union Dead. Here’s the original line, tucked into part of its original stanza from the poem, “Hawthorne”:

On State Street
a steeple with a glowing dial-clock
measures the weary hours,
the merciless march of professional feet.*

Fine as it is. But on my initial reading, I flubbed it into something more remarkable, pausing over the odd aptness of “the merciless parch of professional feet.” It wasn’t until I went back to write down the line that I realized my mistake– and was disappointed at the correction. March is obvious, old, even if perfectly accurate.

Work of Jonathan Schilling, 1983, via Wikimedia Commons.

Parch, though: parch lends a creepy, gradual, truthful desiccation to the grim clockwork of workday prisoners. Here I thought I’d found something respectably kinky, craftily dark, in a good poem– and then was forced to realize it was merely a good poem.

Admittedly: I’d be glad any day to write something of this quality– but I hope if I ever get myself well and truly together, and foist at least a chapbook upon the world, I will have seen, and taken, the faithfully weird opportunities offered up by any muse in the vicinity.

 

 

* Robert Lowell, “Hawthorne,” in Life Studies and For the Union Dead (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007), 38.

 

The Philosophical Universe Comes Through

I’ve used this image before, via Kierkegaard Manuscripts on Wikimedia Commons. But what the heck.

A wonderful article I came across in Aeon this morning made me remember just how beautifully fundamental Søren Kierkegaard has been for the development of my personality, or personhood, or, if you want to go there, my soul. I won’t expound upon the piece by Julian Baggini, other than to say he’s come the closest of anyone I’ve read to capturing both the essence of the sincere Dane, and his effect on many a reader.

As a master’s student, and having only read the theologian/philosopher in my own unsupervised, romantic fashion, I roped my poor advisor into doing an independent study with me on Kierkegaard. I’m pretty sure said prof had no idea what he was in for, and the two of us went head-to-head on more than one occasion, with my asserting, either out loud or within the carefully guarded confines of my own head, that he was killing every bit of life in the philosopher’s thought, in favor of getting everything “right.”

With that first course at least a decade behind me, I’m guessing the entire tone of that sometimes-comical study would be much different today, much less prone to adolescent demands and outbursts. (I’m still toying with sending my old advisor Baggini’s article, and seeing if I can get a couple of nostalgic laughs out of him.) But Kierkegaard continued, a few years later, to pierce my heart right when I needed him. One of the clearest memories I’ve retained from PhD school is sitting in an empty student union cafeteria, 90% of the population elsewhere for Thanksgiving break, and getting ahead on my course reading. It was my first semester in the program, and I was filled with all sorts of constructive intellectual, emotional, and spiritual doubts– and at bottom, I was just lonely. But I had to forge ahead, and so I tackled the section of Concluding Unscientific Postcript that had been assigned over break. I’m going to have to go back to my notes at some point and see if I can find just what it was that affected me so profoundly, but all of a sudden, there I was on the institutional furniture, stared at through the windows by palm trees and a cheerful sun that was absolutely wrong for fall and for serious thought, in a spate of unashamed tears because I’d been made to feel completely validated and unalone by a guy who’d lived and died on a different continent in a previous century.

The instructor of that particular course was a smart guy who was also still clinging to a bit of youthful feeling, and so I related the scene to him after the rest of campus had come back sated and vowing insincerely to work off everything they’d consumed over the past week. The fact that he didn’t condescend or laugh me out of the hall was a small thing– but it was somehow proof that I belonged right where I was, inability to set aside emotion and all.*

And now here we are, a week out again from another Thanksgiving. Although much has changed since those days of constant study, those stormy moods, that same failure to tamp down some form of rebel sadness with and for the world, that same variety of probably-permanent loneliness, are all still part of me, even if I may be able to approach, or even handle, them differently. But I don’t mind admitting my gratitude at having found Baggini’s article this morning; leaving for a few days for willed aloneness this time over the holidays, I think I’ll be taking some Kierkegaard with me. I’m not sure which of his works, exactly, or how I’ll take it all intellectually– but in one way or the other, I’m certain I’ll be accompanied by a benevolent authorial spirit, still honoring his readers’ attempts to figure It all out.

 

* This episode was somehow more lasting and deeply felt than was my finally visiting Kierkegaard’s grave– an odd fact that seems true to the spirit of his thought.

What I’ve Been Doing

Ah, me. How long has it been since I’ve put together a cohesive whole of any shape or size for this particular medium? I’m particularly grateful to lost gander for having called me out about my disappearance; it’s the sort of accountability I need, and have been complaining I don’t have, to kick me back into gear when other, less satisfying activities have been attempting to maneuver a hostile takeover of my energies and brainpower.

The good news is that, in spite of all my neurons being harnessed in the attempt either to 1) hold onto the soul-killing position that results in my current paycheck, or 2) complete a professional certificate in something I actually enjoy, I have at least managed to get a book review accepted at a publication that will actually pay me for having written the piece. It ain’t much, but I feel a sense of victory all the same, and tremendous gratitude for my good friend over at Brutally Ordinary Things for hooking me up.

And as for hope down the road, the conviction that I’ll soon be back on my blogging feet stems from the fact that I’m headed to the absolute middle of nowhere next week, safe from all Thanksgiving hoo-ha in my own little vacation apartment among early-winter grasses and trees and, apparently, a lake. Just me and my books, yoga and walking, coffee and simple food, notebooks and writing implements. Well, probably a computer, too– but it’s all about plopping down in a place with absolutely no tourist attractions and nowhere of interest to go– unplugging from just about everything, so as to clean myself out and return, renewed and full of vim and vigor, to the things, such as writing, that are most important to yours truly.

And if that doesn’t start the words flowing again, well then, give me another good kick in the ass. It’s the sort of tough love that makes my messy world of late seem even remotely worthwhile.

A Sort of Plea from the Innocents’ Corner

So, Kathy Acker– or at least one of her books. Great Expectations is the first piece I’ve read by this particular author, and although I sort of knew what to expect, I still had a hard time digesting most of her depictions of physical and/or mental brutality. Facing up to such scenes in general is difficult for me; whether that’s due to the fact that I allow myself to be too affected by fictional characters, or that I don’t like to admit to the amount and prevalence and intensity of real-world human depravity,* or to a combination of those two or something else, I’m not sure. In general, especially in movies and television, I get the sense that this sort of stuff– rape, assault, other forms of torture– gets featured thanks to the justification that we have to explore the horrific realities of our world if we’re to change it– but that in reality, that justification is just a bullshit excuse to get off on– and tacitly approve of and reinforce– the terrible ways in which human beings interact with each other.

I’ve probably mentioned before my appreciation for the film, Hard Candy– not because I enjoyed its premise in general, but because the indignant, sometimes rage-laden reactions of viewers** to its depiction of a girl pretending to castrate a man by force shows up the bad faith of, at the very least, the entertainment industry and those who consume its products. Portraying the rape of a woman is condoned as the honest depiction of unfortunate truth, but (simulated!) violence against a man by a mere girl is disgusting, over-the-line sacrilege? Obviously, this uneven response says that one form of victimization is acceptable– maybe even expected and not really even lamentable– and the other is not.

But I digress (sort of). The weird thing about– and maybe proof of the particular greatness of– Great Expectations was that I started to suspect that Acker’s methodology was legitimate– that in order to accept the truth of sexuality’s being, as one of her characters defines it, “that which can’t be satisfied and therefore as that which transforms the person,”*** we can’t only accept the rainbows-and-cupcakes results of that transformation. And that none of that traditional goodness is included in this particular exploration, because that’s most of the only stuff we’ve been allowed to see for most of (mainstream literary) history. So, yes, we have to admit to the possibility that sexuality’s unnerving powers may lead us down the path to inhumanity, or at least back into the corner of our own (a-, not im-moral?) animality, where such a twisted path might be inherent to biological necessity itself. But I also have to wonder whether Acker thought she was describing a universal, if largely repressed, experience– not of being overwhelmed in general by our emotions or desires or biological needs, but of being conquered in the concrete ways she describes, of making use of the same genre of tactics and experiencing the same category of outcomes as her mostly horrible or pathetic protagonists do. I have to wonder what degree of her writing counted as therapy or purgation, where or whether all this violence entailed pleasure, and if so, what she got out of it and whether she looked down upon those who derive no enjoyment at all from this savagery.

Via Arturo Ortiz on YouTube.

I know we hardly live in a Pollyanna world, and I wouldn’t want to if we did. But maybe my frustration stems from the desire for a positive answer to the question, “Is there anything true and simultaneously good and/or loving in the world?” Is it additionally wrong to want and want to live out such a truthful thing– not as a forced prescription for every last person, but to at least have that legitimate, non-laughable, non-deadening-domestic-life-in-the-suburbs option available to oneself?

My guess is, much of literature, maybe even Acker’s, is goaded by the desire to find– and entails the search for– an answer to those sorts of questions, whatever the understanding of “true” or “good” involves. If we’re going to take on the struggle in honesty, then, we can’t complain about what we find– and thus I’ll end my peroration in just as cloudy a state as I was in when I began it. Fortunately or un-, such circling is also part of literary and mundane reality.

 

* Especially when it’s centered around gender-based antagonisms– because why must this picture of denigration and hatred and struggle be the necessary result of a simple differentiation of chromosomes?

** My survey sample is admittedly pretty small, coming as it does from discussing said film with colleagues, friends, and family who are normally pretty good about seeing through multiple varieties of social control & etc. An experiment: watch this with guys, and observe their knees-in-laps bout of cringing at a critical scene. Their standard demand is why they had to see that, why they had to be made so uncomfortable. Applied more broadly across the entertainment board, why, indeed?

*** Kathy Acker, Great Expectations (New York: Grove Press, 1982), 107.