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?”**
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some of its real-life booster-creators to obsession or worse, even after its necessary sponsors and support staff had withdrawn under the pressures of reality and the ever-increasing numbers of events that transcended human abilities to pin them down in any meaningful way.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.
I’ve often wondered if some of my inability to remember specifics, or even general plots, of literary works I really love is due to the fact that I read them too quickly. This sort of amnesia is especially prominent when short stories and poetry are concerned; for example, I’ve read Joyce’s Dubliners twice now, loved it both times, and couldn’t tell you much at all about it, except that it was grand, and that there’s a married couple and a staircase and some staring out at (I think) snow. I’ll not even begin to get into my Borges haze, even though I regularly reread his stories, know I’ve read them before, and adore them each time, too familiar to feel new and too alien for me to feel as if I’m repeating myself. With short story collections, if you don’t read one piece and let it sit for a while before moving on, it’s easier for one plot to blend into another, for details to get mixed up in a general sense of the author’s style.
The same goes for poetry collections, even if plot’s not quite what gets lost in the binge-fest. Well aware of this fact, I still challenged myself yesterday to read all of Wisława Szymborska’s Here in one sitting. It’s a short book, but I was hesitant to accept my own demand, wanting to let each poem dwell long enough in my mental space to do everything it should before I moved on to the next separate entity in the collection. But then I just got into it, and let myself fly through everything.
Here’s what I noticed: some welcome quirkiness,* an obvious wonder on the poet’s part at the world around her/us,** and what I’m going to call a Foucauldian gift for stating the obvious. That last item on the list sounds bad, but it’s actually a supreme compliment. Let me elaborate.
In a philosophy seminar long, long ago, the instructor noted with awe that Michel Foucault’s real gift may have been describing how things– societies, cultures, norms, traditions, knowledge, etc.– emerge and function, descriptions about which we’re ready to say, “Well, of course, that’s obvious”– but then we realize that no one before him had ever really provided such descriptions, taken the time to lay out what we thought was common sense and/or the natural run of things– and both by showing up our sort-of laziness and giving us a picture of what’s really going on, we realize what makes up the worlds around us is never as simple– or maybe as beautiful in its complexity– as we’d imagined.
I’ll say the same for Szymborska; her talent for making what should have been obvious surprising is most evident in “Assassins,” where she reminds us that the people who practice the profession of killing have everyday lives that involve “wash[ing] their feet… mak[ing] phone calls while scratching their armpits.” And there’s something about “Foraminifera”s assertion that these little beings “did what they could since they were able” that makes you pause and realize there’s a new possibility of seeing one’s environment in play here, without it being forced upon you, a way of approaching what’s around you that you hope you, too, can adopt.***
But for all that awe, Szymborska’s not naive about the world’s charms or anyone’s/anything’s innocence; even while luring us into loving descriptions of unseen creatures and the cliffs their shells became, she reminds us in “Nonreading” that, standing in our point in time and culture, “We live longer/but less precisely/and in shorter sentences.”**** Will we retain the capacity for wonder, and if so, the attendant ability to interpret it, to really enjoy it to its full? We’ll have to wait and see, and be vigilant, as her poetry seems to be, if that future is to remain, or become, a reality. For my own part, I guess I could start contributing to that project by being more intentional about savoring so many good words, instead of wolfing them down too eagerly.
* My favorite? Her observation, in “Here,” that
Like nowhere else, or almost nowhere,
you’re given your own torso here [on Earth],
equipped with the accessories required
for adding your own children to the rest.
Not to mention arms, legs, and astounded head.
Wisława Szymborska, Here, transl. Clare Cavanagh & Stanisław Barańczak (New York, Mariner Books, 2010), 3.
** There’s a poem, for example, about the curious existential nature of the population of a microscope slide! And one on the single-celled creatures known as Foraminifera! Charles Simic states it best on the back cover when he praises the poet for “her atypical lack of narcissism.” ibid.
*** ibid., 33, 27.
** ibid., 39. There’s also often something about her style that reminds me of the fantastic Lydia Davis. Of course, I should be stating that Davis (who’s most likely read her share of the Polish Nobel laureate) reminds me of Szymborska, but that’s what happens when you compare writers with each other, based on whom you came to first.
I’ve been playing a lot of guitar lately. That’s not to say I’m any good; for one thing, my midget fingers have never been able to master the dreaded B chord, which is constructed as a barre. Unfortunately, that particular technical nemesis is pretty essential to a lot of songs I like, and I’m also incapable of transposing– so avoiding it altogether is also out of the question. My handicap doesn’t constitute a life-threatening crisis, though, so my musical frustration has remained at a minimum, even as I get the sense that my skill at mashing down multiple strings simultaneously has not at all improved.
But reading, for all intents and purposes, has gone out the window; a story out of the Borges collection and a few pages of The Woman in White before bed at night have had to suffice. Thankfully, it’s no problem to pick up right where I left off with the latter; I suppose that’s the benefit of novels originally designed as serials.
What has been problematic is proceeding at the snail’s pace into which I’ve fallen with Feyerabend. In one sense, taking Mr. Science slowly allows the details of the man’s arguments to lodge themselves firmly in my brain before I add another layer to any given assertion. But leaving off in the middle of a thread means backtracking every time I pick the thing up again, further dragging this already glacial process down into a stagnant swamp of learning.
However! I’ll chose to look upon the situation positively, and claim that my current sloth allows me more time to wonder about questions the reading has raised before I get started again. For instance, Feyerabend begins Chapter 13 by reviewing the arguments he’s made so far about Galileo, namely that he
made progress by changing familiar connections between words and words (he introduced new concepts), words and impressions (he introduced new natural interpretations), by using new and unfamiliar principles (such as his law of inertia and his principle of universal relativity), and by altering the sensory core of his observation statements… We may therefore change [rules], create new facts and new grammatical rules, and see what happens once these rules are available and have become familiar.*
What hit me upon first encountering this passage, and is continuing to stay with me, is the suspicion that just this way of proceeding– essentially, imagining up an entirely new structure and just throwing it out there– may be the only way we can think ourselves out of and beyond capitalism. Admittedly, that project could end up bloody and horrific, as happened with the Soviets. But if we’re ever to emerge on the other side of societies being structured and run according to a free-market metaphysic (wherein The Economy is the overriding arbiter of all value), we’re going to have to burst the bounds of the known, because it’s just so difficult even to imagine what such a world would even look like, much less how it would function.
We have historical examples, sure: communities of self-sufficient farmers, various tribal arrangements, failed utopias, and so on and so forth– but none that really succeeded on the sort of global industrial scale to which we’ve all become accustomed. And so, one question is: can I still have access to quinoa and coffee if global capitalism goes away? And if not, is that really important?
What connections, and between which words and principles, might we need to create or reconstruct? What new (sorts of) impressions and/or senses are necessary to envision and birth a world devoted to human (and environmental) wellbeing, and not to an artificially crafted economic construction? I’ll end my idealistic speculation with those inquiries, knowing I’m far from the first to ask them, and that I’ll definitely not be the last.
* Paul Feyerabend, Against Method: Outline of an anarchistic theory of knowledge (London: Verso, 1975), 163.
Wow: two weeks, two extended trips, Internet-free life in a bubble, and good literature: nice way to wrap up the new year. The books I devoured during that time:
The Duel (Alexander Kuprin): Good story, solidly satisfying if you need your fix of star-crossed Russian love, young adult male hand-wringing, and army-based idiocy. Here’s the rub, though: stay away from the Melville House version (2011, translation by Josh Billings), as it probably represents the worst instance of copy editing I’ve ever seen in my life. For instance, the spelling of any character’s name often changes on the same page, and with Russian names, that’s a trend you really don’t want to deal with. Words often seem to have been omitted, and, in addition to mistakenly employing terms spelled similarly to the ones Billings probably meant to use (inter alia, “lobe” on p. 65 should have been “love;” “retched” is printed in place of “wretched,” on p. 296), apparently, no one even bothered to turn on the spell checker– because how otherwise are we to explain the presence of flubs (again, inter many other alia) such as “cutching” where “clutching” is the word we want on p. 83, or “dagnle” instead of “dangle” (139)? I stopped making a list of all these nutty examples in order to save my own sanity and suppress questions about why I always had a hard time finding freelance editing work, when yahoos such as the ones in charge of this volume had their products see the light of day.
There was also James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime. It was okay; I enjoyed the descriptions about the seasons, and really, most tales of wandering around France will have at least something redeeming about them. But in this case, the whole setting just felt like a way of covering soft-core porn with a veneer of profundity, or at least literary respectability. Salter’s style, here, at least, is clean and spare– but I’m guessing I won’t pick up another of his books, if Sport is representative of the rest of his canon.
Finally, I plowed through two collections of short stories by Rick Bass: The Watch, followed by In the Loyal Mountains. The former was his first collection to be published, and it was fine– so it was especially interesting and gratifying to plunge right into the latter, and to see how much and how well the guy had developed as a storyteller between the publication of the two books.
In addition to reading, I also got in a solid round of buying, and so I’m now well into my much-longed-for confrontation with Karl Ove Knausgaard’s second volume of his series, My Struggle, and am completely spellbound. To accompany that weighty undertaking, I’ve also got Clarice Lispector’s A via crucis do corpo (The Via Crucis of the Body) going; you just can’t go wrong with Lispector, and so far, I’ve been especially blown away by “O homem que apareceu” (in English, I’m guessing it’s translated as “The Man Who Appeared”), which feels wonderfully, amazingly similar to Carmen Martín Gaite’s El cuarto de atrás (The Back Room), one of my favorite books of all time. And I continue to move slowly, but, hence, all the more attentively, through the Borges collection. With a cold and snowy week ahead, then, I’ve got a solid stack of goodness to take with me under warm covers. A superb start to the new year!
There’s a story going round in my head, which has emerged courtesy of a conversation about personal travel experiences. And I have most of the narrative laid out– the only problem, if problem it is, is that, to be honest to the near-contemporary episodes ripe for examination, this tale is demanding to take place in Nabokovian time, a temporal space that could never rule out the possibility of, say, Walter Benjamin meandering through the gathered ensemble, an old-world, book-bound sort of Alfred Hitchcock cameo.
But the risks of undertaking such a project are rife; although historical accuracy isn’t a matter of concern here, the sort of language that’s forcing its way onto paper is obviously not the stuff of the Twitter era, or even of my own Reaganite childhood, whose idiom perseveres undaunted, sometimes forgetting that Max Headroom died long ago. Imitation of dialects and generation-based modes of speech so often results in sad rigidity, somehow betraying the author as nothing more than a hollow shell unable to thrive in his/her own time.
The good factor here–or bad, depending on one’s writerly skill and ability to compare it accurately with others’– is the presence of works that have brilliantly carried out just such aspirations. Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon, in addition to feeling linguistically alive, is so amazing that I forgave the author for having written The Crying of Lot 49, or at least for what felt there like a misogynist’s take on a literary heroine.* And John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor couldn’t have been written in anything other than would-be 17th-century English. Then again, the other side of the (perhaps not same) coin is a possibly unsound allegiance to bad or inaccurate or otherwise not useful works or translations that employ (now-) dated language: to cite just one example, the King James Bible, in addition to other issues of redaction and translation, is full of terms and phrases that no contemporary person would understand without a good deal of education, and so leaves the field wide open to nutty theological interpretations.
Since my story is really just an experiment in accurately getting across a feeling, a peculiarly situated discomfort, I don’t feel a great deal of responsibility regarding its setting or style, as long as neither detracts from the obvious presence of the sensation itself. If I even finish the thing, I will have scored a minor personal victory– so I’ll only worry at that point about time-bound missteps and false vintages. Until then, maybe some Nabokov is in order for tonight’s bedtime reading…
* In spite of said portrayal, I love, love, love the underground postal system featured in the book. Look again at my Cold War-era upbringing and historically-linked childhood desire to be a spy**; how could I not have fallen in love with such a set-up?
** This career goal lost its charm once I realized just what implications it carried along with it: in addition to fooling enemy no-goodniks, a true exemplar of the profession would also be pulling the wool over the eyes of everyone else, including the people closest to and most important to her. And all this in the name either of venality or of patriotism– the latter skillfully described by Borges as “that least discerning of passions.” Jorge Luis Borges, “The Shape of the Sword,” in Collected Fictions, translated by Andrew Hurley (New York: Penguin, 1998), 138.
“Then I reflected that all things happen to oneself, and happen precisely, precisely now.”
Jorge Luis Borges, “The Garden of Forking Paths”*
Man. One of the many things I love about Borges? The fact that you’re not quite sure, sometimes, whether a statement like that is meant to be taken as is, as commentary on the speaker and/or what’s going on, as proof of a delusion, or as any number of other interpretations. In the story in question, I’m guessing it’s option one and/or three; I haven’t decided yet, and haven’t checked out any secondary literature on this piece that I first read ca. fifteen years ago. (In fact, I may not seek out the advice of official others at all, and might instead re-read the thing a few times to see what ends up sinking in and/or coming to the surface.)
If (and maybe especially if) a delusion– if, even in successfully communicating his information to Hitler, our anti-hero is mistakenly according himself a place in the centrality of the universe– that little sentence, even lifted from its well-crafted context, speaks volumes about everyone, at some point in his/her life. It’s certainly what some new-age-type gurus would have us believe, with bright encouragement to construct vision boards and to rearrange the subatomic structure of the cosmos with right thinking, the better to achieve positive outcomes for our little selves. And it’s certainly what at least one colleague and I were feeling this morning, as we hosted a Big Event and wondered whether we were doing the right thing, paranoid that idiot slip-ups on our respective parts would wreck the whole show. Sometimes, a deluded sense of grandeur, as in the story, ends in crime and falling bombs; sometimes, as happened in the real world this a.m., it just means you care.
In my own, post-bash universe, the everything that happened now, just to myself, over the course of four hours, was one of the best naps I’ve had in a long time, while outside, the perfect, fog-laden sleeping weather settled in. It was almost as if the afternoon had been made just for little ol’ me…
* In Jorge Luis Borges, Collected Fictions, translated by Andrew Hurley (New York: Penguin, 1998), 120.
Other than a toe-freezing bout of parade-watching this morning and a sort of anti-holiday celebration with friends this evening, my extended weekend has been and will be silent, solitary: the better to lose myself in other peoples’ words and the worlds they create.
And with all this time on my hands, I’m going back to Borges, a near-mythological master who occupies a place in my very small pantheon of literary gods. (Sure, I have a lot of favorites– but the giants I’d be afraid of meeting because I’d feel even smaller and more toddler-like than usual in comparison get their own VIP room up on my version of wordy Olympus.)
But even the mental imprint left by this in-group’s output is often very general in my mind; especially with Borges, whom I’ve read extensively, I can’t give anyone details of what was said or took place; I often can’t even keep straight which topic or theme occurred in which story or essay. All I know is that I repeatedly fall head-over-heels for the places I’m taken, and the media that carry me there. The framing and content and context are essential to the feelings that result from delving into any of these narratives– but it’s the feelings that remain, and blot out the scaffolding that allowed them to emerge in the first place.
And so, when I read in the intro to the first edition of A Universal History of Iniquity, “I sometimes think that good readers are poets as singular, and as awesome, as great authors themselves,” I have to wonder, in light of the sentimental muddle that takes up all the space in my head, if I’m a good reader. Admittedly, I’m not really concerned with the answer; I read because I love it, and because I couldn’t live (as opposed to merely survive) without transformative literature. But I am curious.
There’s no arguing that I’m a respectful reader; I always approach the page with clean hands; I get nervous about lending out tomes to people who think nothing of cracking spines; for many years now, I’ve taken notes on a separate piece of paper, instead of writing in the margins. And my love is sincere– but unless I’ve read something four or five times, and (probably) been required to write extensive essays on it, I’m usually left without any ability to tell people why I’m so smitten with a particular poem or story or book. Because I’m continually afraid of letting others down, and/or bothering them with pointless raving, what the real bother is about this whole tendency, I think, is that I’ll be left looking like the aerobics instructor (Sam) in Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives, flustered and silly and obviously at a loss to explain astrology to a crowd of disdainful intellectuals:
Sam: It is true! It is totally, totally, totally provable, you know?
Female Party Guest: Provable how? From gypsies?
Sam: Well, it’s totally logical, right? You know, why wouldn’t the position of the planets have an influence on our personalities?
Well– as long as I’m not hanging out with sneering human beings, I should be fine. Still, if I were to run into the ghost of Maestro Borges today, I would hope he’d place a kind hand on my shoulder and, not really resolving the matter for me, let me know he’s seen my faith, and has been convinced of its truth.