Self-Protection and Guilt via Words on Trains

Well, friends, no one was reading in my carriage on the way home today; any ability to concentrate on anything at all was shot completely to hell by two meatheads shouting threats and insults at each other. The scene came complete with stereotypical bad-cinema moves such as one oaf turning to his presumed audience (i.e., the rest of the car) and making his case to us, then standing up and removing his outerwear and looming in simian fashion over his seated foe, while the latter challenged his aggressor to go ahead and make good on his promises– an outcome which, of course, never happened, and which consequently meant the rest of us were trapped listening to this inane exchange until they both got off and actually started chest-bumping and pushing each other along the platform as we were finally able to leave them behind.

It was the second day in a row that I had to be vigilant about the people around me; a completely different sort of mentally disturbed individual paced up and down my car last night, muttering to herself and getting every now and then in the face of some poor passenger she decided she didn’t like. In that instance, at least pretending to be engrossed in my magazine seemed like a good protective move, and as long as this lost soul was on the other side of the carriage, I could actually get in a paragraph or two.

My increased train-riding over the past year has made especially evident some alternate uses of reading. In this last instance, it proved to be a sort of defensive shield. Less justifiable– and (hence?) more shameful– are those times when I just don’t want to deal with one more panhandler. Although everyone involved can probably see through the ruse, being visibly sunk into a book makes it seem (we all tell ourselves) as if you’re so in the zone that you just didn’t notice the person begging for change or making a public plea for assistance in the aisle. My own worst bout of comeuppance concerning this tactic came about a year ago; although I really had been fixated on a novel, I was well aware of the guy who’d just gotten up and said, “I don’t mean to scare anyone.” In spite of my own wishes that I weren’t so jaded, that I could believe that each person’s pleas were honest and legitimate and valuable, and that I could– and more importantly, were willing to– give something to every needy person who crossed my path every day– in spite of all that rolling guiltily around inside me, I didn’t look up, and tried to focus on the doings of fictional characters as well as possible, while the story of the living person in front of me continued to be told. And when we arrived at my station and I headed out the door, I happened to glance at the man who had reached a point where he saw no choice but to publicly set his own dignity aside– and who, I finally allowed myself to see, was asking for money in order to bandage the largest, most horror-film-esque gaping and suppurating wounds I’ve ever witnessed on a living being.

I still haven’t been able to rid myself of the painful awareness of what some Southern religionists I know would call being convicted of one’s own sin– or the regressive spiral of guilt that continues to accuse my inhumanity vis-à-vis everyone in need (whether a so-called “worthy victim” or not) to whom I haven’t given what I’ve got when asked for it. Every now and then, it makes taking up a bound volume of print feel like the bad sort of privilege– an easy method of dismissing harsh realities from which most people on this planet simply can’t walk away. Handing a homeless person a book is so far from making any meaningful difference in a horrifying structural situation, such a gesture is more or less an insult. But I really do wish those two lunks on the train today had been more able and willing to tune out the world– or at least each other– with some sort of reading material of their choice. In following the adventures and travails of some disembodied character, they might have felt less need to act out flawed attempts at heroism for themselves.

 

Abandoning Catalogues, Bonding Atoms

Not even illness could keep me this weekend from devouring the remaining half of The Earthquake Observers, sucked in as I was by its winning combination of an inherently interesting topic and the atmosphere of European modernism that pervaded most of the work.* I was especially fascinated by Coen’s discussion of various scientists’ late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century attempts to form something of a universal catalogue of seismic activity, to “be perfected from year to year, [and] become the fundamental repertory of the entire seismological science of the future.” But unsurprisingly, this aspiration was short-lived, given the number of qualifying occurrences in even one year, for just one country or region. As one sponsor noted, once it had become possible to record “macroseismic and microseismic observations… on the surface of the globe with the necessary fullness of detail and generality, the work of the annual global catalog will become completely unrealizable; the central office will be literally overwhelmed… can one imagine the International Meteorological Association publishing an annual catalog of rainfall on the surface of the globe?”**

From the Geological Society of London, on Wikimedia Commons.

The enchantment here for me was the fact that this endeavor, and the resigned reactions to its impossibility, seem as if they could have come straight out of Borges, a natural-sciences add-on to “On Exactitude in Science,” or “The Library of Babel,” maybe even “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” For all we know (Coen devotes only a couple of pages to the wished-for catalogue), the project may have driven some of its real-life booster-creators to obsession or worse, even after its necessary sponsors and support staff had withdrawn under the pressures of reality and the ever-increasing numbers of events that transcended human abilities to pin them down in any meaningful way. Given our contemporary technologies and their superhuman recording and processing abilities, maybe such an undertaking is more achievable than ever before– but, thanks to the natural world’s wonderful ability to slip out of our grasp via the masterfully unseen cracks it’s created, I’ll place my bet on its never happening.

Even though this aspect of seismology seems still doomed to failure, the way in which the science has always been and still is dependent on “lay” observers may be one of the reasons I’m such a fan.*** Indeed, I especially appreciated Coen’s pointing out of the not-just-science-benefitting ways in which this participatory model might (have) enhance(d) the lives of those who go in for observation of the earth’s motions. Including the entirety of one woman’s letter to geologist Hans Schardt as an example, Coen notes that talking to people about what they experienced during a bout of shaking or shifting “was a social opportunity, particularly for those living in solitude… [within] the atomization of modern society,… [it] offered a welcome excuse to penetrate the social walls that separated neighbors from each other.”**** Such an aim never was part of “pure science”– but if one of its branches not only benefits from, but also bestows boons upon, the people of all sorts working to further it, I’ll call that a win, even if the universal knowledge we like to believe is such an unalloyed grand thing never materializes.

 

* N.b., it also continued to feed my need for modernist– or in this case, neo-modernist, as I’ll call it– literature, as I also swallowed whole W.G. Sebald’s excellent set of essays, A Place in the Country.

**Deborah R. Coen, The Earthquake Observers: Disaster Science from Lisbon to Richter (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2013), 175, 177.

*** In my earthquake-zone-dwelling days, I would get stupidly excited and grateful any time I had even the most minutely plausible opportunity to fill in information on the U.S. Geological Survey’s “Did You Feel It?” website.

**** Coen, 94.

Shaken into Modernism

All this talk (or rather, reading) about the development of seismology to which I’ve been exposing myself lately has instilled a burning need for some honest-to-goodness modernism. All of those earnest 19th-century Europeans tromping around and beyond the continent’s borders, trying to be objective and proper and to note dispassionately the time and duration of a temblor when thrown out of their beds for the first time: well, the bearing of those eager beavers had me thirsting for the particular variety of literary clarity only someone like Robert Walser can provide, and so I flew straight into the arms of his Jakob von Gunten.

I especially love when tales from this particular subset of time and place also happen to be set in an educational environment, one of my favorite examples being Robert Musil’s Young Törless. The fact that said genre’s depictions of boarding school life are often stark and cruel*, and that they still have me feeling slightly cheated that I never experienced that form of institutional existence, speaks volumes for these authors’ way with words– but in particular, for their ability to bring out those environments’ pervasive, saving air of mystery, especially with regard to instructors. Anyone, even lowly public school kids like me, who’s ever had a crush, whether platonic or more, on some beloved teacher, will know what I’m talking about.** I can only imagine how much more heightened is the intensity of sick teenage infatuation when everyone’s living on the same premises, and when adolescent imaginings and naïveté only feed off of and strengthen each other without respite. At the same time, those authority figures who seem so immune to your own youthful anxieties, and who have no desperate need of guidance or intense friendship, become even more alluringly mysterious and (because they have to be even more purposeful than their off-campus counterparts about guarding their privacy) maddeningly out of reach.

There’s so much to love about this book– but as should now be no surprise, I zeroed lovingly in on its way of portraying students’ obsessions with their teachers, and the disappointments or uncertainties that may emerge if said authority figures actually end up reciprocating a young person’s desires for a personal relationship. And so, Jakob lets us know early on that “… [he was] always thinking of him, of both of them, of him and Fräulein, the way they go on living here with us boys. What are they always doing in there, in their apartment? How do they keep themselves busy… perhaps one day I shall penetrate into these inner chambers… I know it, somewhere here there are marvelous things.” And as his daydreaming invades his reality, we’re sometimes unsure of how Herr or Fräulein Benjamenta is really acting, whether either or both is truly confessing to him (precisely what the love-struck student hopes for!)– but we do catch glimpses of Jakob’s disillusionment as the brother and sister become a little more human for him: “Everything’s collapsing, the classes, the effort, the rules… Something is going on and I don’t understand it yet;” “I’ve been, at least, in the authentic inner chambers, and I must say, they don’t exist.”***

Even though Jakob looks as though he might finally set aside his fantasies of the principal and his sister (and maybe even of his own aim in being at the institute), his acceptance of his own self-delusion reveals what we may all be longing for on some level, and why so many of us will agree to the tenets of doubtful, yet guiding, propositions, beliefs, and people: namely, at least having something to hold onto. As Jakob decides, “This person suits me and I’m not asking myself why any more.” **** Even if it means having to continually repair and reconstruct– and overcome being let down by– an image crafted of your own imagination and longing; even then, it’s a bit of a relief to stop having to ask yourself why.

 

* This characterization doesn’t really apply in Jakob von Gunten– but the school in it is still really not a model of educational aspiration.

** I still have very little understanding of why I, at least, thought teachers possessed some transcendent quality, that their everyday routines were somehow fraught with special allure. Yes, yes; I’ve always wanted to learn everything anyone could teach me– but that doesn’t even come close to explaining this particular emotional mystery.

*** Citations in this paragraph are from Robert Walser, Jakob von Gunten, transl. Christopher Middleton (New York: New York Review Books, 1999), 17-18, 128, 139. Probably the most devastating tale of what schoolgirls’ naïve fantasies about their teachers could result in is depicted in the 2002 film, Blue Car, with David Strathairn turning in a creepily, believably brilliant performance of a could-have-been.

**** ibid., 176. Also, this is the completely wrong place for this question, especially since I’m addressing the end of this book– but who is this brilliant translator and introducer-of-the-work, Christopher Middleton? I don’t believe I’ve ever been driven to find out more about the introducer’s own work, based on his/her introductory remarks– but this Mr. Middleton has made me terribly curious about what other literary output he’s got up his sleeve.

 

 

 

Science and Subjectivity

I mentioned not too long ago that I thought Diane Ackerman had a tendency in A Natural History of the Senses to make too-quick assumptions about general human feelings vis-à-vis the environment and its many phenomena– and I illustrated my discomfort by citing her assertion that “we” associate winds with destruction. Well, the following has nothing to do, really, with warnings to authors about making more humble characterizations– but it does have to do with wind, and with some fun poked at bygone naturalists with a tendency to exaggeration. Behold, some satire from Mark Twain, directed at popular earthquake reporting and forecasting:

Oct. 22–Light winds, perhaps. If they blow, it will be from the “east’ard, or the west’ard, or the suth’ard,” or from some general direction approximating more or less to these points of the compass or otherwise. Winds are uncertain–more especially when they blow from whence they cometh and whither they listeth. N.B.–Such is the nature of winds.*

I’m not sure why I almost choked on my roll at “Such is the nature of winds”– but that stifled chuckle was soon followed by another when reading just a few sentences later “Oct. 26–Considerable phenomenal atmospheric foolishness.”

US propaganda leaflet via Wikimedia Commons.

US propaganda leaflet via Wikimedia Commons.

This quotation is featured in a chapter on earthquake-centered humor in Deborah R. Coen’s book, The Earthquake Observers: Disaster Science from Lisbon to Richter. I’ve long been fascinated by earthquakes, to the point of being so charmed and surprised to find myself in one for the first time that I didn’t even think of moving to safety until the madness had already passed. (Sometimes, as in this case, the stupid get very, very lucky; that one came in somewhere in the middle range of the magnitude scale.) And so, from the start, I knew that the information in this book could even be presented in less-than-stellar style, and I wouldn’t really mind. But Coen’s scholarly exposition makes good use of humor and very human (i.e., quirky, limited, or otherwise engagingly foible-laden) assumptions from the history of disaster science. Even the crotchety Karl Kraus makes a noticeable appearance, with, among other things, his commentary on tone’s ability to convince people of all manner of falsities, citing as an example a satire of an earthquake observation accepted as the real thing by a major press.**

I’m not even halfway through this exploration of how earthquake science developed in tandem with the popular press and scientific practice and discourse as a whole– but if the rest of the book is as thick with lovely linguistic nuggets from long-gone scientists and commentators as it has been thus far,*** the rest of this sunny weekend may just be spent devouring it whole.

 

* Cited in Deborah R. Coen, The Earthquake Observers: Disaster Science from Lisbon to Richter (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 58.

** I’ve long been meaning to read Kraus via more than secondary sources; now I’m doubly determined to see what he had to say about the “fake news” of his own time, and whether it might help us understand why so many people, in a day at least technologically different from his own, are still so willing to be swindled by what would seem to be obvious misinformation– or, as some might call it in certain circumstances, propaganda or ideology. Another nugget of Kraus-wisdom Coen offers us sounds like it could be a condemnation of a sizable chunk of contemporary social media users: “The idiocy that would never have thought of emerging from its life in private has discovered an opportunity for immortality; banality has been lured out of its hiding place; average humanity has been hauled out in triumph. A consuming greed to be named has taken hold of the Mr. Nobodies.” (Coen, 67.) Kraus was no friend to the average human being– but behind the sneer is nothing other than a more detailed version of the truth-kernel expressed in (what may not have actually been) Andy Warhol’s dictum, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.”

*** e.g., describing Iceland as one “of the earth’s great safety-valves,” or the way in which false reports were received as evidence of “the heartlessness of a belief that has been disappointed” (that latter quote coming from Kraus again). ibid., 49, 66.

Train Connections

It’s the kind of thing you (or I, at least) hope will happen when buried in a book in public: some fellow reader sees the text in your hand (or on the table, your lap, etc., etc.) and feels enough of a connection or surge of curiosity to take a chance and say a few words to you. Before today, it had happened twice in my life that I could remember, totaling a 50% goodness ratio.

Instance 1 (the bad) taught me a lesson: never make it obvious in a public place that you’re studying biblical Hebrew. Because that one fundamentalist nut in the vicinity will somehow hone in on you and assume you share the same ideals. Even though you can’t see the flames painted on the back of his jean jacket, and the question about where the person viewing them thinks s/he will spend eternity,* his Chester Molester glasses tell you all you need to know, regarding the sort of conversation that’s about to be foisted upon you. And you, of course, not enjoying fights about metaphysics or faulty logic or anything else, really, will find yourself losing a battle against a member of the Pentecostal inquisition. In this case, in a hostel in Boston.

Instance 2 (the good): deciding it was time to cede my table to someone else in the crowded café where I’d been reading Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics, I packed my bag and made ready to leave. But before I’d stepped away, a representative from a neighboring tableful of Russians asked what I was reading, and whether it was as fascinating as its cover and title made it appear. I granted it was interesting, and we had a short conversation about reading and physics, and then I left, feeling a tiny bit more connected to my neighborhood.

I’m glad to report that my train ride home today provided me with a third case of someone stepping briefly into my life, thanks to a text– and that this chance meeting upped the goodness ratio of those types of encounters. Pulling into a station, an elderly gentleman caught my eye, saying in reference to the latest issue of The New Yorker I was reading, “It’s quite a cover this week, isn’t it?” He had to have recognized the particular font and/or one of the cartoons from the publication, as I had the magazine folded in a way that didn’t make it obvious to most people what I was reading. But we smiled at each other in recognition of our common enjoyment of a particular periodical, and parted ways as he got off the train. Those few seconds were a far cry from a new friendship– but I’ll take it, by golly. I’ll take it.

 

* This self-made design was only revealed to me after the crusader finally walked away in disgust. It was also what told the surly Irishman at the check-in desk that the argument he was witnessing was not, in fact, a domestic dispute, as he’d originally assumed was the case.

What the World Needs Now…

… other than love, sweet love,* is the work of Chilean poet Nicanor Parra. For one thing, check out his ability to say so damn much, in so few words, and without making a big show of overtly stating a piece’s Big Themes.

Lady

your son has rickets
give him beef broth
milk give him steak and eggs
get out of this pigsty
get an apartment on Park Avenue
you look like a ghost, lady
why don’t you take a little trip to Miami**

And really, the big kicker running throughout Parra’s work is his keen, unsparing social analysis. As an example, take this piece, read it multiple times, remember it.

The Rule of Three

Not counting
The twenty million missing
How much do you think the deification of Stalin
Came to in cold, hard cash.

Monuments cost money.

What do you think it cost
To pull down those concrete hulks?

Simply moving the body
Out of the mausoleum to the common grave
Must have cost a fortune.

And what do you think we’ll spend
Putting those sacred statues back in place?***

Will that cycle ever come to an end? I think there’s ample cause to doubt positive(-ish) responses to that question, even when they come from big brains such as Hegel’s and Fukuyama’s. But Parra and all the other prophets committed to making us face the full reality of our (individual and social) nature– and to pushing us to rise above its worst depths– are always essential, especially when we think we’ve reached the complacently safe end of history. So go, pick a favorite poetic nugget of strength, and let it assist you in, to riff only semi-accurately on a notion of the aforementioned Georg Wilhelm Friedrich H., dwelling with our own time’s particular negatives.

 

* (and a variety of other big-ticket items, such as the absence of bigotry, greed, and aggression)

** Nicanor Parra, “Lady,” in Emergency Poems, transl. Miller Williams (New York: New Directions, 1972), 53.

*** ibid., “The Rule of Three,” 49.

Leaving the Literary Rut Behind

Admittedly, I’m currently just a tad emotionally influenced by good Scotch*– but I think even the soberest of mes would agree that few things can raise one’s mood like delving into really solid literature, especially after having forced oneself to schlep through the subpar variety. That’s right: having finally disposed of Diane Ackerman’s A Natural History of the Senses** and Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose, *** I’m basking in Monika Fagerholm’s The American Girl. It’s early in the game with this new read, but it’s still got the shine of newness about it, and bears the extra charm of having been finally found after a few years of futile searching for it in local bookstores.

Somehow, this sparrow courtesy of Ken Conger and Wikimedia, is on par with my mood.

Somehow, this sparrow, courtesy of Ken Conger and Wikimedia, is on par with my mood.

Then, too, there’s Osama Alomar’s Fullblood Arabian. You know if Lydia Davis was convinced enough of the poet’s work to write a forward to it, it’s going to be good– and so far, that method of judging its quality has proven sound. A mix of aphorism, super-short story, and poetry, it’s not perfect– but it’s true and unashamedly curious, and therefore, refreshing.

Top all that off with the fact that I and the guy next to me on the train this morning were digging into identical copies of The New Yorker, and it all just gets better. I realize the magazine has a gajillion subscribers, and that the coincidence is more or less meaningless– but I’ll take any evidence of solidarity between two human beings I can get these days, tenuous as it may be. He’s to you, train friend: although we never even dared to look each other in the eye, for a few minutes there, we had a good thing going.

 

* Don’t worry, readers; my extremely low-frequency indulgence in the products of the alcoholic kingdom, and hence, my exceedingly low tolerance, mean that my evening consisted of only one glass of Glenmorangie, nursed over a couple of hours and accompanied by a respectable amount of food. So much for my rock-n-roll lifestyle.

** Brief review: The author tries to make her point about the wondrousness involved in how humans make contact with the rest of creation by piling up a bunch of lists and making unfounded generalizations (e.g., “We think of the wind as a destructive force.” Maybe I’m odd, but the first thing I think about when the concept “wind” pops up is a pleasantly blustery day; destruction doesn’t come into my own head’s conversation about the topic until we’ve gotten well past recognition of soft breezes, for example). All in all, the book tends toward the mawkish, although I am willing to grant its moments of insights, such as the assertion that “When you consider something like death… then it probably doesn’t matter if we try too hard, are awkward sometimes, care for one another too deeply…” Both quotes are from Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses (New York: Vintage Books, 1991) 237 and 256.

*** I’m being overly harsh in calling this one subpar; maybe it was simply a combination of the book’s being too long to hold the interest of someone not really into stories of Western pioneer hardihood.