29 January 2018

Some Things of Which I Am Afraid

    1.     Death: when we have shuffled off that mortal coil and there are no dreams. Death, when there is no consciousness and no sense that there is no consciousness. No blackness . . . not even a sense of nothingness, but an absolute nothing. To be dead and no even know one is dead: to know nothing! It is inconceivable.
 2.     Spiders: perhaps a fear not unrelated to Number 1. Once at a day camp in Roslyn, New York, a middle-class destination for children during the summers after schools let out and when suburban parents, mostly mothers, in my experience, preferred a quiet household for at least a good part of the daytime hours. We were picked up early and returned late. On this day I awakened on the green-enough grass from an afternoon nap with a tickling sensation on my face.  I reached up to scratch it and pulled off a daddy-long legs spider. Whose presence was the trespass, I wonder? Again, at a sleep away camp in Wolfesboro, I awoke one morning to find on the window sill by my bed a wolf-spider, all big and hairy. I don’t remember my immediate response but from future fear of spiders I cannot imagine I did not scream, but in my mind the spider has grown to enormous proportions.  Now, in the outdoors I give the spiders their space, but indoors I am ruthless and pusillanimous as I at some distance squeamishly swat the creepy crawlers and then run quickly from the slaughter leaving the squashed remains to Nature.
3.     Stock Prospectuses: that appear regularly in my mailbox from my financial advisor. I don’t understand any of the economic jargon and certainly cannot discern what is being prospected. The numbers terrify me. Whenever we talk I ask him if I am rich and he responds, “Yes,” but I refer to my bank account and he refers to my quality of life. I say I know I am rich but ask if am I wealthy? To which he responds, “We’re workng on it.” I recycle the unread prospectuses.
4.     Donald Trump: whose incompetence, dishonesty, racist, misogynistic stance threatens the democracy of which he clearly hasn’t the faintest notion. I’m afraid that his ignorance will destroy us.
5.     Death. Of the mass destruction kind. An annihilation not only of the race but of the sense of earth as well. There is a poem by Richard Wilbur, “Advice to a Prophet.” He writes that when the prophet comes, as he must, it would not be useful to speak of our deaths: “Our slow, unreckoning hearts will be left behind,/Unable to fear what is too strange./Nor shall you scare us with talk of the death of the race./How should we dream of this place without us?” How think of ourselves when there is no world from which our sense of selves derive. This fear related to #4.
6.     Aimlessness and the loneliness that stems from it. There is a line in Nadine Gordimer’s Burger’s Daughter: real Loneliness is to live without social responsibility. Outside of the classroom I now wonder if I have become lonely and I consider how I might for the rest of my life be not lonely. Related to Nos. 1 and 5.
7.     The newspapers. Anna Wulf pastes newspaper stories on her wall believing that if she knows the news then she controls it. Alas, the newspapers only tell me how little control I finally possess and reading them only leads me to despair. Related to #4 and #5.
8.     Depression: the loss of joy and hope and purpose. In these moments I think of Camus’ The Plague: the tale Dr. Rieux had to tell “could not be one of final victory. It could be only the record of what had had to be done, and what assuredly would have to be done again in the never ending fight against terror and its relentless onslaughts, despite their personal afflictions, by all who, while unable to be saints but refusing to bow down to pestilences, strive their utmost to be healers.” I fear the plague. I hope to fight it. Related to all of the above.

22 January 2018

Writing, Reading and Living

Citing John de la Casse with whom he agrees, Tristram says, that when a “personage of venerable character and high station” becomes an author, all the devils in hell turn against him in order to “cajole” the writing. During the 18th century, when Sterne wrote and published Tristram Shandy, cajole meant “to prevail upon or get one’s way with (a person) by delusive flattery specious promises, or any false means of persuasion.” A writer while writing is beset by untold outside influences—all the devils in hell— that would lead the writer to question everything about the work in progress.
     I often feel that way when I write. With every word I put to paper a doubt arrives with it. Every thought has its antagonist, and every statement set down contains a question that must be addressed before the work might proceed. And then there is the writer’s concern regarding the projected audience that sits not in front of the author but atop her shoulders at her desk. That audience speaks its demands into the writer’s ear, insisting on certain emendations, corrections and additions that regularly compromise the integrity of the writer and the writing.  Yes, writing is a battle. I remember reading somewhere in Roth’s corpus that he could write for a full day—eight hours—and produce a yield of only a single page that at the beginning of the next day’s effort he might even discard. The life of the writer, says Tristram, is therefore not so much a life of composition as it is one of warfare, and that the writer’s success in writing depends not so much on his wit as on his resistance! I agree mostly.
     The above is a preface, and a rather poor one at that—I have earlier written a chapter on the nature of prefaces, and Tristram composes and places his preface as Chapter XX of Volume III. My preface call into question the very presence of prefaces, and Tristram’s preface is neither a defense of his book nor a summary of what the book will be about; Tristram’s preface does not frame the work to follow because in fact this particular work defies framing. The writing, Tristram, says, must speak for itself! Rather, in his preface Tristram addresses the nature of wit and of judgment and the necessity that the two qualities must be balanced in any work. Thus, in this preface Tristram tells us how to read not only this book but how to approach any and all works of art and scholarship: with a balance of wit and judgment. In his belated preface that is no preface, Tristram tells us how his book ought to be read: with a good deal of wit and judgment.  
     For example: narrating the story of the fallen sash that hit young Tristram (--‘Twas nothing,--I did not lose two drops of blood by it) and Corporal Trim’s subsequent proactive dismantling of every sash in Uncle Toby’s house, “he had taken the two leaden weights from the nursery window: as the sash pullies, when the lead was gone, were of no kind of use, he had taken them away also, to make a couple of wheels for one of their carriages.” Thus, says Tristram, since there was no real method to Trim’s practice save his fierce insistence that every sash be removed and thus, disabled, Trim in fact disabled the entire mechanism. Tristram adds, “A great moral might be picked handsomely out of this, but I have not the time—‘tis enough to say, whatever the demolition began, ‘twas equally fatal to the sash window.”  I am reminded of Sancho Panza’s observation in The Man of La Mancha: Whether the stone hits the pitcher or the pitcher hits the stone, it will be bad for the pitcher.
     But Tristram’s refusal to draw the moral that he claims might be drawn from the story leaves that effort to the reader! Do it yourself, reader, the book demands; the preface has already defined the requisite tools to be engaged in this effort: wit and judgment! Thus, here the writer invents the reader by defining first the qualities a work should have and therefore, instruction on how the work must be read! Tristram Shandy is a book about reading as it is about writing! And how a life might be lived: with tolearance for our contradictions, our foibles and our virtues. “Now I love you for this—and ‘tis this delicious mixture within you which makes you dear creatures what you are—and he who hates you for it—all I can say of the matter, is—That he has either a pumkin for his head—or a pippin for his heart,--and whenever he is dissected ‘twill be found so.” Here, here!  

11 January 2018

On some violence up here

I am on an airplane (again and alas. I do not like traveling though I travel). I am trying to maintain some semblance of my dignity though I why I am worrying about this status interests me, I am sitting in first class and that should be enough, I would like to think. I have carried on board my two volumes of reading materials: weighty tomes worthy of any self-proclaimed, would-be scholar. I’ve got my reading journal in which I would put my erudite thoughts with my blue-ink fountain pen (as opposed to my black ink fountain pen or my too fancy ball point).
     But it is for me hard to focus on the airplane because around me are very active screens on which films and tv shows are displayed and I am forever distracted. For example, on the screen one row ahead and to my right the gentleman is watching a film entitled The Hitman’s Bodyguard starring Samuel Jackson and Ryan Reynolds. He began watching before we even began taxiing and the film continues now through take off and meal service. And every time I lift my head and cast my glance over to his screen it explodes with incredibly violent images: the film began miles sago with a shootout in which I swear twenty or fifty people were killed.  I think that the plot line is I merely a ploy to sustain scenes of violence and bloodshed to be accompanied by flowing rivers of blood flow and cavernous images of at least twelve wounds a-gaping. It doesn’t seem to matter what happens as long as it is accompanied by shootings, bombings and mass carnage.
     Perhaps the action serves as a substitute for the mundane lives viewers think they live. Thoreau says our lives are not as mean as we think, but I think that these scenes of violence serve to exacerbate a dechromatization of our lives and make them seem even more dull. Full disclosure: I have seen all seasons of The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, and Boardwalk Empire.  I know the joys of screen violence. I did use the violence to leave my life behind. I remember Thoreau declaring that at times he felt like consuming raw squirrel with his bare teeth. I do not think he indulged this fantasy, but it perhaps permitted him to exorcise some demons.
     These images do distract me from having to think very hard; indeed, to think at all.
Perhaps these films waste the energies of us so that we don’t have to manifest them in the public sphere where action would be certainly welcome. Like the spectacle of sports in large stadiums and on the television screens, violence in the movies takes people out of the public sphere and leaves them deposited where they remain will remain out of the way and thus, out of harm’s way. (I look up: another shooting and twenty people dead, though not Ryan Reynolds nor Samuel Jackson!!On the screen in the seat next to me Charlize Theron is beating up on two or three well-armed men. I think they don’t stand a chance!) I would imagine also that these films take one’s mind off the fact that we are eight miles high and a long way to touch down, though I recognize that these films are prevalent on the ground as well. In the theaters, I suppose these films distract us from the brutality prevalent every where else but very evident in the reports of the daily newspapers. No matter when I look, up here someone is getting blown up, and there is still fifty minutes to touch down.

08 January 2018

I digress

And I wonder why it takes so much time and exhaustive effort to read Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne. Not discounting the 18th century syntax and vocabulary (the OED is the dictionary most required and I wish I recalled better how to diagram sentences), I think that this is a book without a real plot but actually about what is thought about what ever occurs that approaches the idea of plot.  And as soon as Tristram begins thinking about what has happened and comments upon the action, he offers the context of that action relating it to the philosophical currents past or present; to instruct the reader how to perceive that action (or how not to perceive it); etc. Tristram Shandy is a book built on digressions and I cannot with any certainty situate myself anywhere in the text because at any one time there is no clear plot line to keep me on track. These digressions offer insight into character and time; without digressions the book lacks substance.  Indeed, without digressions there is no book—“Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine;--they are the life, the soul of reading;--take them out of this book for instance—you might as well take the book along with them . . .” I think sometimes that life, too, becomes meaningful in the digressions.
     A book, like a life, might be considered a skilled interweaving of plot and digression and a reader must learn to distinguish the presence of either. A digression stops the movement of the plot because it offers context for the plot; and the plot puts an end to digression because one can’t call up context in the midst of action.  This reminds me of Thoreau’s caution written somewhere that we can either live life or write about it: of course, the opposite holds true: if we write about life we cannot live it unless the writing becomes life.
     To read Tristram Shandy is to enter into the wonder of why and how to read at all: is reading the mere following of plot or is it the enjoyment of digression. How to make sense of the relationship between the two strategies of elaboration. If the former perhaps books might be terribly made shorter: as Joe Friday demanded, “Just the facts, madam.” If the latter then the plot can only be understood by the digression, but the reader must learn how to understand the connections between overt plot and digression: the reader must discover the relationships between the plot and digression. Readers must discern the role of the digression within the content and context of the book. Zuckerman, Phillip Roth’s fictional creation, accuses Roth of deceiving the reader in his autobiography, The Facts, by writing ‘only the facts’ and editing out “the one percent that counts—the one percent that’s saved for your imagination and that changes everything.” In The Facts, Zuckerman complains, Roth is too proper to be truthful, too well behaved and modest to be honest. Only in fiction, Zuckerman argues, can Roth be honest. Tristram’s digressions argue similarly: without them there is no book:  “that tho’ my digressions are all fair, --as you observe,--and that I fly off from what I am about, as far and often too as any writer in Great Britain; yet I constantly take care to order affairs so, that my main business does not stand still in my absence.” The story must go on, but the story is meaningless without the digressions. The digressions contain the plot by giving it context and therefore move it along; the plot needs the digressions to approach honesty. The author has to be attentive to “keep up the spirit and connection of what they have in hand.”