Beach hotel

We’re at the beach for the weekend. Our hotel is book-themed. Each room is named after an author: we’re staying in the Lincoln Steffens room, decorated with a desk and typewriter; and we have photos on our wall: of a grimacing Teddy Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson looking like the missing butler from the Munsters. They really look as dead as they are. Teddy doesn’t look like his end was restful. There are photos of authors everywhere, the hallways are hung with them all up and down their length, so dense they are at most a half a foot apart. Photos are standing on the bookshelves, arranged in layered rows on the mantlepieces, and for sale in the gift shop as postcards.

It’s kind of creepy. It’s not that I don’t like books, or authors. But that’s all these photos have in common: that they are all of authors. There’s nothing else; that’s the only aspect of their lives, characters, and interests they have in common, yet it is enough to make them symbols of some kind of alliance. It doesn’t feel comfortable. Even as a decorative principle. Regardless of whatever other alliances they may have had, whatever differences or hostilities existed between them as individuals, here all that is erased and disregarded. The shallowness is stifling. It’s like drowning in an inch of water.

But the view from the third floor library, where I am writing this, is extraordinary. The ocean doesn’t look large, visibility isn’t high enough, but it gives a sense of restrained power. The waves are irregular, and small, the ocean’s forehead wrinkled, worried by crossing winds. Last night I sat up and was reading, and the wind was blowing so hard my chair moved beneath, me, I could feel the walls ripple as it struck them, and the pipes sounded like a performance art troupe was hammering on them. Today the wind is still strong, there are birds levitating in place on it, hanging right outside the window.

On the beach, the sand is thick and wet and stays out of your shoes. It is flat and even and all homogeneous, apart from a half-made jetty, large rocks running down into the water. I walked out on them at low tide, just as the tide was turning to come in, and felt the barnacles and other clinging creatures making noise beneath my feet. There are streams running down from yesterday’s rain on the town, they make mini-ravines with abrupt, cliff-like sides, and they fan out into deltas with muddy islands as they descend to the ocean. And north from the hotel, there are large rocks rising out of the sand like monsters out of a swamp.

I spoke with a young boy: after I came off the rocks, he asked me if there was anything to see. He was holding a dog by the leash, a tall, nervous thing that kept stepping back and forward in a jerky way. I told him he could, on the far front of the jetty, see pools between the rocks the tide had left behind, and there were some sea-creatures to see there. I wonder when I will be by the ocean again: the air is unlike the air of the land, and it is good to bring my cares here, and spend some days in the company of any books, and with the sea there as a huge sink, bigger than whatever worries I can bring to it.

Work and the otherworkly world

There was sudden rain, and the view of the north-west warehouses from the fifth-floor window was sunk in the kind of blue that I usually see only in lowlit photographs from digital cameras. Other people weren’t surprised, it was predicted. But I didn’t know about it, and hadn’t packed a lunch. I was counting on my burrito, rain or shine. I went out and did a ducking sort of run and reached the canvas cover of the burrito cart. The rain wasn’t the usual Portland rain, but sharp and swift and it came in at an angle. The cart was empty and unminded; the surface of the salsa was getting filmy, the cheese was starting to drown, and the wind was knocking the tinfoil around from one side of the counter to the other.

Where I was standing, the rain was blocked from going down my neck by the overhang, but it hit me all up and down the back of my legs, which now itch, and my feet are still wet. The cart stayed empty for several minutes. I don’t like a burrito but once a week, but when I want it I want it then, so I stayed. Several minutes of hopping from one foot to another, trying to peer around in the rain, ducking back under cover. Then I remembered I had inexplicably put a book in my pocket before coming outside. Good instinct however. I stood reading for several minutes before the strikingly green-eyed, skull-headed (hollow sockets, a vanishing nose with two long, upturned nostrils) burrito minder returned.

I read an argument that began with this premise: there are two approaches to the world, the otherworldly and the this-worldly. The this-worldly aren’t only those who don’t believe in life after death, but also those who did but thought it was like life now, only more so: with work, praise, society, and love; life, as it is, only pruned of pain or tedium. But those who think that there is no good to be found in this world and all that is good can only be the opposite of what we see, that this world is essentially valueless. I don’t know how far that goes in context, but out of it, it’s a fine was to divide everyone I know who works.

There are those who think their jobs are okay, but there are some things they’d like to change, but over all they are doing what they want to do. Then there are others, for whom all work is bad, it can’t be improved or ameliorated apart from making it vanish, and the real, true life is confined to what happens outside of working hours. Time goes on two tracks for this group, and the two don’t intersect.

But in the analogy, everyone in the second category is secretly a counter-platonist. Because the other-worldly person, according to the book, thinks of the other world as inviolate and separate and not dependant on this world. This world is a nothing, an illusion, or an offense. Even the adoration of the other world which he practices is a defilement, and unworthy of that world. There can be no connection. It is the platonist other world, which is purity, truth and reality itself.

But Plato himself, this is the beginning of the story, made a strange reversal, just at the point where he had developed the idea of the involate other world. At this point he turns and incorporates a strange version of this-worldism; the world that we live in turns out to be the product of the other world, what is good in it comes from that other world and so does what is bad, which is a corrupted version of the otherworldly good. Further reasoning along this line concludes that not only is the self-sufficient world the source of this world, it is also dependant on this world, its own characteristics are imperfectly expressed if it cannot be creative. In order to be the pure, good, true and real thing it is, it needs ot be the source of the less true and the imperfect thing that it creates. The blinding light creates and needs to create shadows and half-light. The shadows and the half-light, their imperfection, is part of the overall perfection, and they are themselves thus good.

But for the other-workly person, the real work, the real life, is enabled by the bad in this life, the pain in here and now is the foundation for the true glory yet to come. In order for the real life to exist at all, the work and the drudgery must be gone through, the real work or the real life wouldn’t be possible otherwise. And in the complementary turn to Plato’s, the real work is what gives this work its meaning, it is what makes it bearable. This work, as it is, is good; since it enables the other.

The burrito maker returned. I asked whether on days like this she really appreciated her job. Yes, she said, she’d been standing there, alone, watching the rain this morning, not attracting a line, and thought now why didn’t I bring a book? Reminds me what a good job this is. I said it was like camping, sitting in a tent. She said yes, or a boat. The canvas was flapping, and we were wet. I got extra sour cream and cheese on my burrito, and nearly fell asleep at my desk afterlunch, sitting in my wet things with an over-full belly.

Rereading and rejudging

I had read W. G. Sebald’s Vertigo in a copy that was missing four or six pages, in the first part of it, about Stendhal. The hole was in one of the most interesting parts of the whole book, and I was curious to know what I had lost. Today I got another copy out of the library, and it had all its pages, and I reread the Stendhal section, and was surprised to find that I seemed to recognize all of it. I couldn’t tell what was missing. Everything I saw I seemed to have seen before. I’m not sure what to make of that. Maybe: Sebald is a continuous, viscous substance, that reforms itself over any gaps that appear in him? Is there such a thing as counter-vertigo, the sensation of not changing position, while things about you are objectively moving? It was uncanny.

There are three, maybe more, but at least three, kinds of rereading: I read something at two different times in life, both times leaving myself open to what the thing has to tell me. I learn how I have changed, I learn how the thing is layered, I learn how the times have changed, or pressures formerly on me are missing. I reread something to see what I have missed, as in the case of Vertigo, something doesn’t add up, I look to fill in a gap or make up for something. And also I reread because I am looking for a specific thing or trying to answer a specific question, and then my question changes, and I go back with something else in mind and change the weight I throw on the parts of the thing I see. It is a question of angles, the different ways of seeing the one object, that somehow don’t interfere with each other, or exist on separate planes.

When I was in college, I really enjoyed reading Nietzsche, and then I read him again in the years afterwards, and then just the last couple months I have tried rereading him again. Only now, I have to question what it was I saw in him before. Whatever it was, it seems to me, it is pretty far buried, beneath the pseudo-science, the quick reductionism, the sloppy, authority-based thinking, and the disrespect for the reader. I’m still plugging away at him, and I’m now reading Zarathustra, which I am finding more palatable, sort of a self-help dressed up in opera costume. There’s an interpretation of it I can swallow, though it doesn’t preserve much of his self-importance, or the importance others found in him – these being the two perspectives I think that I fell most in line with, on readings one and two.

Somehow in the relaxation of my standards, I have rediscovered, or allowed myself to remember, what I found or put there, the first time I visited. At a certain point in my life, early in the history of my independent mind, I had realized I couldn’t believe in the god of my father; but I was afraid of causing trouble for myself, and I put aside my failure to believe. I had a number of methods for doing this, none of them fully efficacious. I had to alternate between them, and work at the subject of god from many different angles, to lay it to rest each time I was forced to confront it.

And that multiplicity complicated my thinking and left me alienated from the truth as I saw it and tried not to see it. And it made me dishonest and hypersensitive, and intolerant of fundamental disagreement or dispute, I couldn’t allow that people weren’t victims of a mutual understanding, that there was something they could believe together. And on some level, I saw in Nietzsche a kind of honesty and fearlessness, more important a trust in his own thoughts, thoughts and wild chains of thought that I had had and not let myself possess, that I found very freeing; and then the parts of his thinking I was finding so disagreeable now, those parts I could use my customary self-hypnosis and dishonesty on those to make myself the real object of criticism, for not giving him that space where he could differ with me. Something like being afraid to render a judgment. The fear of being wrong, or of being unable to convince another, keeps you from ever being right, or having your own conviction. The world may be fundamentally multiple, or it might not, but even if it is, the multiplicity fundamentally depends on each part of the multiple being itself what it is, and no other.

I still have trouble reconciling multiple points of view. There’s something that still makes my head spin, only I have the powerful desire not to learn where I think the ground might be. I watched the movie Judgment at Nuremberg this afternoon. I’ve read three books over the last year having to do with Nazi trials: Rebecca West’s Train of Powder, literary-journalistic pieces about the trials together with accounts of other trials in England and the United States; a historical book about the origin of the War Crimes Tribunal in negotiations between and within the great powers and governments in exile and how they came to be in the form and with the aims and under the jurisdictions that they did and had; and then Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, which covers a similar trial with constant reference to the Nuremberg trials.

All in all the cumulative effect on me has been to make me feel that I know something of what happened even though I can recall very few details of any single account. It’s like I triangulated a location by looking at a map, out my window, and at a reflection in a sheet of glass, with months between the sightings. But yet I have a feeling of familiarity, I feel ready to judge these works against one another and against reality without having any idea what the reality was. And with that confidence, I can somehow see the characteristics of each of these works more clearly than I did when each was before me, one at a time, separately, in their place in the pile of things I have read and watched in the last year; yet somehow a documented, scholarly account and an impressionistic-journalistic one and a philosophical-polemical one are all on the same level with the dramatized, schematized film version, which seems to me to be as reliable and thought-provoking and fair as any of them, although none of them are even quite about the same thing.

Learning about character

A friend of mine surprised me last night. I know him about as well as I know anyone, though I don’t see him that often – he doesn’t see anyone that often. I know his interests, I know how he behaves when he’s upset, I know how he’s most comfortable and I know his own particular way of undermining himself. I am familiar with a range of motions and postures and it’s easy to pose him in my mind to match whatever position in whatever diorama I want to fit him in. But I didn’t expect to see what I saw and it makes me wonder what I have learned about him at all. Learning as a concept has been tying me in knots recently, and I get lost trying to think about what makes up character as well.

We biked up to visit him with a bucket of compost from our apartment, we’ve been helping make mulch for the garden. It started to rain, so we decided to wait out the weather instead of going to the movie we had planned to see, and sat, watching the rain, making fun of his cats, one of whom has a skin condition and no tail, listening to his screeching, irritable bird. And then when he told me about the reading he had been doing, how he had given up on music which had previously taken up all his time, hadn’t played at all for two months, and had been instead reading and researching 9/11, the Rothschilds, the Jesuits, secret plans for a North American Union and world domination put in motion and sustained by a shady cartel of business interests that came closer to their goal year by year, working steadily and single-mindedly since at least 1871, I was surprised and alarmed.

We talked about it, I gave my point of view. It is striking to compare two nearby moments in the flow of our conversation. Just a few minutes before, we had been talking about his wife’s family, he had been painting a vivid picture of her sister and brother, the new used-car business her brother and her sister’s husband had gone in on together, the feeling of their home life. It was sane, reasoned, funny and wise all at once, in the typical way he talks about life, and moving from that subject to how he spent his time while his wife was away with them, we lifted up the cover of that strange world that I didn’t expect.

Now there’s something about learning things like this. The initial surprise fades, in a deliberate way. I reasoned: he’s not crazy. If he believed his cousin or his brother-in-law was behind a large, secret conspiracy, that would be crazy. This isn’t so crazy, it’s just a lapse. The events he is trying to understand are large, and difficult to comprehend, and made more obscure because of the various interests trying to keep lights on one or another aspects, while others are keeping other parts hidden, all motivated differently and with different goals in mind. The failure is that he applies his steady, penetrating focus on certain events, facts and statements and interprets them in themselves, looking for hidden meanings in them, instead of placing them in a wider context where he can bring his accurate sense of people and realities to bear. Then he also doesn’t interact with people or information sources that would challenge the conclusions he has come to, and so they get more and more firmly rooted and then they become foundation for further reasoning.

The key to fixing these thoughts would be to return to him a perspective where the agents who are carrying out these plans are human beings just like the ones he knows, making mistakes sometimes and getting lucky other times, living from moment to moment most of the time just like everyone else, and managing to accomplish only a small fraction of what they plan, and planning in reference largely to themselves, their friends, and their ideals. This move attaches the new knowledge to an existing picture while making the minimum of modification to that picture. It resembles a time in my life when money was tight, and I spent time and energy collecting bottles for return from coworkers, doing online data entry for a penny an item, and otherwise behaving disproportionately. Naturally he understands my incredulity and he has his own explanation for why I don’t accept what he told me.

But in a way that is uninteresting, and even rings a little false. Let me try the following point of view: I don’t want to explain what I have learned and join it to a seamless picture, to turn it into just part of his larger character. There’s something truer in my failure to anticipate this development in him, and that is exactly what the reformed picture leaves out. Isn’t it where the reality comes in, isn’t that the untouchable source of knowledge, isn’t the confusion I experienced something like the dazzle from seeing the truth, and the reasoning following on that, isn’t that like blinking away the afterimage? That’s the thought in the back of my head that is daring me to try it. Learning isn’t learning, is what this point of view wants to say. Learning is the attempt to minimize surprise and discomfort following on a piece of true learning, which is fundamentally not cumulative or additive and can only be repeated confrontations which teach nothing but respect, that ordinary life and maturation require you to cover over.

Message in a bottle

Listening to the radio the other day I heard a program (sort of) about the 1977 Voyager spacecraft, launched into space with a golden record and other goodies; the hosts of the show talked to several moderately well-known people and asked what they would include. Philip Glass, for instance, would include Bach and Tuvan throat-singing (details unspecified); Neil Gaiman would include the The Wizard of Oz, among other things. Several of the folks interviewed included things it would be difficult to include on a gold record: mandarin oranges in syrup, or an entire meal at Chez Panisse.

Naturally, this got me thinking: if I were involved on the generous but foolhardy project of assembling some sort of representative selection of life on earth, what would I include? This is the sort of thing I think about while bicycling, and so the first things that popped into my mind were: the sound of bicycle wheels on pavement in all the seasons of the year; the feeling of one gets after narrowly avoiding collision with an automobile; the smell of the air on a cold, clear autumn day leaves in a slurry on the road.

Then my mind wandered: the feeling of going home to people who care for you; the desire for and receipt of the first cup of coffee in the morning; the feeling of being warm in bed on a day when you have nothing in particular planned and nowhere in particular to go; the smell of books; a very soft blanket; imagining one has done something well but not being quite sure; warming up after frostbite; the shell of a cicada; the curl of a pea-plant on a string; the smell of soil in the sunshine; water.

The more I thought about it, the less I could think of things to leave out. Even things not commonly thought of during such exercises seemed impossible to omit: quarries – chewing gum – car exhaust. Finally I reached the point (some five blocks from home on my bicycle) that really the only appropriate thing would be to wrap up the entire planet – the entire solar system – very carefully and wait.

Those magic caskets

So we’ve got through the first section of the book. Chapter three, of course, just finishes the story begun in ch. 2 and, although there are some amusing anecdotes, he’s not really going anywhere except on a narrative jaunt. But chapter 4! The first section of the book is like one of those shortbread cookies with jam in the middle: the jam is always uninteresting and a bit of a disappointment compared to the actual cookie, but without the jam the cookie wouldn’t taste nearly so good. Chapters 1 & 4 are the cookie (i.e. the substance), and 2 & 3 are the jam (meagre travellog with all the annoying pips and sugary congealments of the genre). I was thinking of beginning with a quotation like I did last week and I just couldn’t choose: I wanted to quote the whole chapter. E.g.:

Journeys, those magic caskets full of dreamlike promises, will never again yield up their treasures untarnished. A proliferating and overexcited civilization has broken the silence of the seas once and for all. The perfumes of the tropics and the pristine freshness of human beings have been corrupted by a busyness with dubious implications, which mortifies our desires and dooms us to acquire only contaminated memories (37f.).

And so on and so forth on the falsity of travel narratives – as though he weren’t implicated, though he is and realizes it:

I wished I had lived in the days of real journeys, when it was still possible to see the full splendour of a spectacle that had not yet been blighted, polluted and spoilt; I wished I had not trodden that ground as myself, but as Bernier, Tavernier or Manucci did … Once embarked upon, this guessing game can continue indefinitely. When was the best time to see India? At what period would the study of the Brazilian savages have afforded the purest satisfaction, and revealed them in their least adulterated state? Would it have been better to arrive in Rio in the eighteenth century with Bougainville, or in the sixteenth with Léry and Thevet? For every five years I move back in time, I am able to save a custom, gain a ceremony or share in another belief. But I know the texts too well not to realize that, by going back a century, I am at the same time forgoing date and lines of inquiry which would offer intellectual enrichment. And so I am caught within a circle from which there is no escape (….) In short, I have only two possibilities: either I can be like some traveller of the olden days, who was faced with a stupendous spectacle, all, or almost all, of which eluded him, or worse still, filled him with scorn and disgust; or I can be a modern traveller, chasing after the vestiges of a vanished reality. I lost on both counts, and more seriously than may at first appear, for, while I complain of being able to glimpse no more than the shadow of the past, I may be insensitive to reality as it is taking shape at this very moment, since I have not reached the stage of development at which I would be capable of perceiving it. A few hundred years hence, in this same place, another traveller, as despairing as myself, will mourn the disappearance of what I might have seen, but failed to see. I am subject to a double infirmity: all that I perceive offends me, and I constantly reproach myself for not seeing as much as I should (43).

With that I’m going to sit back and see what the rest of the book brings.

I did want to ask (and this will display my ignorance) how that would fit in with the recent Bakhtin craze, if at all? The word ‘spectacle’ set off some little bells in my head and I’m wondering how far it’s legitimate or how much it’s just a false alarm brought on by silly pseudo-critical conditioning.

Idle thoughts

Idle thoughts while at work. (This means: not enough material for a post in any of them alone. So I put them together on a tray and serve while other posts stew in the kitchen. How bloggy.)

1. Have you ever actually heard anyone say that two plus two equals four in “the tone in which one says that two plus two equals four”? When I was taught it, it was an important fact to be studied and learned (so I heard it in tones of incantation, tones of authority, and tones of confusion). Now that I know it, it’s a fact to be referred to on the deductive way from fact to fact (so there’s a pensive tone, well, let’s see, we need to carry the two, and two plus two equals four, so…). But when someone says that someone says something in the tone in which one says that two plus two equals four, they mean a certain unaggressive firmness to the tone which indicates a firm belief that may not be shared with the interlocutor.

2. Throat singers seem to spend as much time teaching technique as they do singing. Why can’t people leave the music to the professionals? I don’t know what it is about producing overtones that makes everyone want go off and make their own instead of listening to the artist. It seems disrespectful. (Yes, I know I do the same thing. When did I become the image of all that is respectful?) Is it because they hear it as unusual noise, not music? But music is just that, very unusual noise with a specific unusualness. I wouldn’t say 25% of concertgoers have the urge to get a precis of Gradus Ad Parnassum after the show. Or are there guerrilla violin workshops that I don’t know about, held in the late evening, when the bowties are all let down?

3. I tend to think that my current concatenation of interests is in itself interesting. Whatever jumble of unrelated things I’m looking into at the current time (why yes, I would love to tell you, but they might just be all too fascinating, especially how they reflect on each other and on me, and especially on me, and you might lose the thread of what I’m saying) are just so attractive, and make me so attractive, that I can’t imagine other people being able to stand remaining uninformed about them, so I inform them. (I try to work all of them in at once, when I can.) Until next week, when they seem played out and boring; and the things I have uncovered about them so obvious and well-known I wonder at anyone’s not knowing them. (And I avoid explaining them, unless I feel like being pedantic and insulting.)