The Big Easy

December 31, 2006 at 8:43 am | Posted in ethics, love, personal, travel | 8 Comments

In the weeks leading up to my family’s Christmas trip to New Orleans, there was one question I had to answer more often than any other: “Are you going there to do charity work?”. The answer was an uncomfortable no; we were really just going there to eat, drink, and be merry. Often I would point out that merely by doing so, we would be pumping valuable dollars into the local economy — but this always seemed a bit flimsy; if we were going all the way there, why weren’t we going to swing over to the Lower Ninth Ward and pick up some debris?

To visit New Orleans these days is to be confronted with an intensified version of the ethical dilemma we first-worlders face every second of every day: with so much suffering in the world, why am I not doing anything to stop it right now? Any answer to this question makes us queasy: “I do what I can,” “I vote with my dollars,” “am I ethically required to sacrifice comfort?” In New Orleans you are faced with this problem immediately: on your way to the relatively immaculate French Quarter, you must pass by neighborhoods that are still a shambles — roofs caved in, boats on top of houses, doors boarded up and still bearing the spray-painted body counts of the initial rescue operations.

But in many neighborhoods, including the French Quarter, the damage is much more subtle. A cracked window here, some missing shingles there, and you begin to notice with discomfort your temptation to read all the decrepitude you see as evidence of the hurricane. But this can’t be right — surely there were always poor neighborhoods in this city; surely there were abandoned buildings before the disaster struck.

The locals make it easier on you by being extremely friendly. No matter where in the world you go, you always feel a little gauche when you’re a tourist — but the people you meet in New Orleans go out of their way to make sure you feel welcome and are aware of how much they appreciate having you visit. My family wandered into a cemetery we happened to pass by, and wound up being given a guided tour by a toothless old caretaker who was just thrilled to have us in his city. He offered to let us climb into an open, empty tomb for a photo opportunity. “There are no human remains inside!” We declined.

In the courtyard of a bar on Bourbon Street one night, my family was startled out of quiet conversation by a man getting down on his knees and declaring, loudly, his love for his wife. We laughed and applauded, and then talked to the couple: they had met in the Superdome during the hurricane. Now they lived in the neighboring town to which they had both been relocated by the government; they refused to move back to New Orleans because they trusted the fate that had brought them together via their uprooting.

Tonight, back home, while I was waiting for my friend Jeff to change his clothes so we could go out for the evening, I saw a scene of Miyazaki’s Spirited Away that moved me deeply. The protagonist, a young girl, is riding on the back of a dragon that is soaring through the sky when suddenly she recovers a memory. She leans over and whispers in the dragon’s ear something along these lines: “When I was a young girl, I lost a shoe in the Kohaku River. When I tried to get it out, I fell in, and I almost drowned. But something pulled me into shallow water. Your real name is ‘Kohaku River.’ You were a river spirit then, and you saved me.” At this revelation, the dragon turns back into a human boy and the two of them begin plummeting through the sky. The boy is overjoyed at being reminded of his true name, and the girl is crying tears that, because the two of them are falling so fast, drop upwards into the sky, leaving a trail from the heavens back to the earth.

This moment of recognition is every moment of recognition. Sometimes you meet a person and you love them immediately, and you don’t know why. You wish there were a story like this: you were a river spirit then, and you saved me. You wish you could cry tears up to the heavens.

I have been home, visiting my parents, for about two weeks now. Ever since I arrived, my mother has been hounding me to read a particular essay by Barbara Kingsolver called “Small Wonder.” I liked The Poisonwood Bible very much when I read it a few years ago, so this morning I finally made time for it. It’s a post-9/11 essay about how to deal with tragedies that are not your own, though they are kind of your own by virtue of being anybody’s at all. Her solution is beautiful: “It’s the same struggle for each of us, and the same path out: the utterly simple, infinitely wise, ultimately defiant act of loving one thing and then another, loving our way back to life.”

Probably your newest love is not the river spirit who saved you. The river spirits do not seem to save many people these days. Back home in New Jersey, the D has fallen off the “CARBORUNDUM” sign, and Amboy Cinemas has been closed and abandoned for years. There is no hurricane to blame. But love? Love is everywhere.

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A Secular Miracle

December 26, 2006 at 6:47 am | Posted in fiction, interpretation, materiality, writing | 2 Comments

First of all, a confession: I haven’t read the new Pynchon, nor do I plan to in the near future. I am studying for my Ph.D. qualifying exams, and I just don’t have time for “outside” reading on that scale. However, Joe over at The Kugelmass Episodes recently talked me into re-reading The Crying of Lot 49 with him, and has written a very insightful post on it, to which I will now respond. I should also take a moment here to thank Joe for pushing me into the academic blogging world in the first place; I had been toying with the idea for at least a year, but had mostly been too shy.

In my last post, I began with a quote by Dillard that I never particularly explained: “There is no such thing as an artist; there is only the world, lit or unlit as the light allows.” It’s an interesting line; you realize upon inspection that it doesn’t so much efface the artist as transmute her into light itself, into a force of nature. In The Crying of Lot 49, Pynchon gives us a related image:

If it was really Pierce’s attempt to leave an organized something behind after his own annihilation, then it was part of her duty, wasn’t it, to bestow life on what had persisted, to try to be what Driblette was, the dark machine in the centre of the planetarium, to bring the estate into pulsing stelliferous Meaning, all in a soaring dome around her?

The novel’s protagonist, Oedipa Maas, has been named executor of her ex-boyfriend’s will, and in the process of sorting out his large southern California real estate empire has stumbled across what she believes to be a vast conspiracy involving, among other things, an underground postal service. The “Driblette” mentioned here is the director of a play that Oedipa believes has something to do with all this. Here, Pynchon positions Oedipa the executor and Driblette the director as sources of light: both of their jobs are to sort things out and illuminate them so that others can understand. Unlike Dillard’s artist, their light is artificial, mechanical. But a line of Borges’ comes to mind. In “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” he describes a world wherein a forged encyclopedia from a fictional planet slowly begins to infiltrate its way through scholarly channels into legitimacy:

How could the world not fall under the sway of Tlön; how could it not yield to the vast and minutely detailed evidence of an ordered planet? It would be futile to reply that reality is also orderly. Perhaps it is, but orderly in accordance with divine laws (read: ‘inhuman laws’) that we can never quite manage to penetrate. Tlön may well be a labyrinth, but it is a labyrinth forged by men, a labyrinth destined to be deciphered by men.

The difference, then, is that while Dillard pounds her fists against a materiality that, divinely created or not, will always be mute, Pynchon and Borges find much more compelling the endless complications that arise when we try to communicate. If the light that shines through an artist must be “natural,” it makes sense that the critic/reader/interpreter must be man-made. Perhaps this is what is meant by the designation “post-modern”: Pynchon does not start with the natural world, or even with the “natural” interactions of humans, but with pieces of communication as such. Or rather, with pieces of possible communication. Early in the novel, the layout of the streets of San Narciso remind Oedipa of an electrical circuit: “Though she knew even less about radios than about Southern Californians, there were to both outward patterns a hieroglyphic sense of concealed meanings, of an intent to communicate.” Throughout her journey, Oedipa is continually confronting texts, items, and coincidences and continually having to decide whether and what they are supposed to communicate.

Joe, in the aforementioned post, gives the following account of the novel:

So Pynchon became a Robbins for me, one who is not outgrown. What he does is certainly not the only possible function of literature. He has merely created a story about the way narrative functions — the interplay of love and curiosity, the irresistible progress forward through revelations, and backwards through meanings, the re-minting of the world by metaphor, the symbolic death of final closure. In other words, he has created a story about the very peculiar and indispensable reason for prose, for teaching, and writing, and reading it.

While all of the things he lists here are good reasons for teaching literature, I would like to add another: The Crying of Lot 49 dramatizes the eternal problem of the reader. “Am I reading too much into this?” It’s a question they generally train us professional scholars of literature not to ask; if you think it’s there, it’s there, no matter what the author may or may not have intended. Generally I accept both Derrida’s notion of the instability of the signifier and Freud’s notion of the unconscious, but discounting authorial intent entirely seems like much too glib a solution. If literature is supposed to be communication (is it?), what the author intended to say ought to matter, at least a little bit. Oedipa’s fanatical search for authorial intent strikes us as hyperbolic, but poignant; for her, there are no alternatives besides cosmic, grandly-orchestrated meaning and mute, meaningless coincidence. Oedipa can’t see her way out of this problem because she will not allow for the possibility that she, as interpreter, can be more than just a projector, throwing somebody else’s map of the cosmos onto the wall. But her frustration resonates; even though we critics have wised up to our own role in all this, who among us has not wished she could talk to Shakespeare, Melville, Woolf, and find out for sure what they were up to?

The tragedy, of course, is that even if we could have this conversation, we would not really be able to find this out. The search for an underground postal service is a search for honest communication, “a network by which X number of Americans are truly communicating whilst reserving their lies, recitations of routine, and betrayals of spiritual poverty for the official government delivery system.” Oedipa needs to believe in this, that behind the banality of everyday life, real communication is happening somewhere.

The thing is, it is. Every time somebody really listens to somebody else, stops waiting their turn and scripting their reply instead of listening and considering another person’s ideas, real communication is happening. It’s certainly not perfect, and our failures to understand each other will always haunt us as the provocative “cul-de-sacs” that Joe points out towards the end of his post.

Pynchon calls communication a “secular miracle,” and I think it’s a telling phrase. It might be the secular miracle: that humans, whose minds must always be utterly separate, can make themselves understood. God’s miracles are utterly uncommunicative, if Dillard is to be believed — the proof of a miracle is its inscrutability. Rocks and trees are miraculous to her. As Joe points out, one of Pynchon’s characters defines a miracle as “another world’s intrusion into this one;” for Dillard, the created world itself is the mute testimony to this intrusion. But what Pynchon wants us to see is that communication between people can be a miracle too — when do we feel the presence of another world more fully than when we finally understand what somebody else has been talking about?

Newborn and Salted

December 22, 2006 at 8:32 am | Posted in materiality, the sacred, writing | 4 Comments

There is no such thing as an artist; there is only the world, lit or unlit as the light allows.
–Annie Dillard,
Holy the Firm

Anyone who loves to read will tell you that certain books are cathedrals. You enter them and are immediately humbled. You are the only one inside. You spend hours in there, examining the stained glass and the grain of the wood on the pew in front of you. Some of these books are ornate, some are spare, but all of them are shot through with a fierce light that seems to be breaking out between the words.

Every reader’s holy books are different. Mine include One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Trilogy by H.D., Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, and Holy the Firm by Annie Dillard. Dillard was the first essayist I fell in love with, the first person to make me realize that an essay could be a work of art, and so it seemed appropriate to begin this project with a discussion of her book. Bloggers are essentially essayists, after all, if somewhat slapdash ones.

I first got into Dillard because of a boy. Kenan was a sophomore in high school when I was a freshman; he was somebody with whom I loved to climb trees, but he was also somebody who knew The Ways Of The World. He recommended Dillard to me, and I dutifully went out and purchased Teaching a Stone to Talk, selected from among her works probably because of its title. The first sentence arrested me: “It had been like dying, sliding down that mountain pass.” I knew I had discovered an art form that would be a necessary part of life from that moment on. Essays, creative nonfiction, where had you been all those years?

It’s a stern art, grounded mercilessly in reality. It’s like photography: you take a real thing, out there in the world, and you mess around with your aperture, focus, and F-stop until you achieve the composition that communicates, through some miracle, your subjective experience of the thing. To read Dillard is to encounter the world, bright and immanent and baffling, and to realize you are not other than the world. You die, you slide down the mountain pass.

Holy the Firm is almost certainly the book I have read more times than any other. It weighs in at only 76 pages and takes only an hour to read, so every six months or so when I find myself with a particularly lovely chunk of time to kill I will pick it up again. Its opening is ten times more stunning than that of Teaching a Stone to Talk; so much so that I will refrain from quoting it here, because I want you to have the experience of opening the book and seeing for yourself. Dillard intimates in The Writing Life that in its early stages, Holy the Firm was poetry, and only later in the process did she decide to “print it as prose.”

It’s a book about suffering and beauty. Dillard wrote it while living, Thoreau-like, in a one-room cabin on the Puget Sound, one wall of which was glass and faced the ocean. This situation itself is the chief subject of the first chapter. The second chapter is about a little girl whose face gets burned off, and the third chapter is about communion wine. Dillard describes herself in some book, I forget which, as a “Christian mystic.” She is a troubled one– the beauty of the world impels her to worship, but its cruelty impels her to mutiny. Her books urgently ask “one of the few questions worth asking, to wit, What in the Sam Hill is going on here?”. If you take seriously the idea that there is a God, the existence of suffering poses an enormous problem. Theologians have been arguing about it for years, and the solutions they offer are, let’s face it, pretty thin. Suffering exists so we can appreciate the good? Suffering exists so that morality can exist? Suffering is an inevitable consequence of free will? Some of those sound good on paper, particularly the last one, but come now– God bound by the laws of logic, unable to lift the rocks he creates? That has never been a persuasive image. Job’s comforters offer answers like these, but they are futile. God’s answer to Job’s plea is the only real answer: “Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?”

The problem is always that God is inaccessible, and we are hopelessly material. Dillard takes her materiality seriously, and sees in it the grounds for a serious challenge against the Allmighty. But she also sees something else:

What can any artist set on fire but his world? What can any people bring to the altar but all it has ever owned in the thin towns or over the desolate plains? What can an artist use but materials, such as they are? What can he light but the short string of his gut, and when that’s burnt out, any muck ready to hand?

The idea that art arises from suffering is a cliche as old as the standard theodicies above, but to my knowledge no theologian has posited that suffering exists so that we can create art. Art is a means and not an end in most religions. Reading Christian theology, one is sometimes struck by how monstrous man seems– made of clay, and yet he speaks. In the middle ages, theologians were so baffled by the idea of how something with no material existence (the soul) could cohabit spatially with something of only material existence (the body), that they invented a third concept, the spirit, to bind the two together. God told them that man consisted only of body and soul, but Plato told them that “it isn’t possible to combine two things well all by themselves, without a third; there has to be some bond between the two that unites them” (Timaeus). To avoid heresy, St. Augustine and Aelred of Rievaulx had to declare this third thing entirely material– they identified it with the “subtler” elements of fire and air. Through manipulating these elements, they claimed, the soul was able to control the body’s grosser elements of water and earth.

For Dillard, materiality is material, the stuff of art. For Dillard, man is not a monster who needs to be explained away, but a miracle who needs to be explored and exulted. Here is her description of the mind-body problem:

It is the best joke there is, that we are here, and fools– that we are sown into time like so much corn, that we are souls sprinkled at random like salt into time and dissolved here, spread into matter, connected by cells right down to our feet, and those feet likely to fell us over a tree root or jam us on a stone. The joke part is that we forget it. Give the mind two seconds alone and it thinks it’s Pythagoras. We wake up a hundred times a day and laugh.

I resolve, then, never to be Pythagoras. This blog will be a record of wakings up.

Watch this space

December 15, 2006 at 5:14 am | Posted in meta | 6 Comments

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