Everything Need Not, Actually, Be Illuminated

April 4, 2008 at 10:09 am | Posted in excess, love, personal, reticence, writing | 8 Comments

Yesterday I had the minorly excruciating and entirely bizarre experience of sitting through three hours of personal introductions on the first day of a nine-person seminar class. The class, which I am considering auditing, is being taught by a Jesuit monk turned professor turned journalist and recently re-turned professor, so perhaps he doesn’t know that most graduate seminars consist of intellectual exchanges between people who, for the most part, don’t know each other very well outside the classroom and form their ideas of one another largely on the basis of how smart they manage to sound when talking about the assigned texts. Most graduate seminars begin with “introductions,” but these take the form of “Hi, I’m Mary, I’m a second year in the English department, and I work on Victorian novels.” This professor, by contrast, demanded that each of us give an account of our relationship to Americanness, to religion, and to poetry (this being a class on American religious poetry), and then proceeded to interrupt each of us numerous times with sincerely interested questions. “Oh, what town in Texas was that?” “Would you say your connection to Catholicism is more cultural, then?” etc. For the nine of us to account for ourselves and answer his questions in sufficient detail took the whole three hours allotted for the seminar, which was on the one hand excruciatingly boring and on the other hand fascinating.

What fascinated me was not the particular details of my colleagues’ stories (though they sometimes were quite interesting), but the process of accounting for myself in this way, and of watching other people do the same thing. My “religion” and my “poetry” stories are both things I have recounted so many times that my telling of them in class today was more like a recitation than a process of self-discovery — but my “American” answer was a little more roughshod, and I ended up feeling dissatisfied with it, like I hadn’t really expressed what I’d wanted to. What happened, actually, was that I recited a couple of things about my parents’ families, but I didn’t really get a chance to think or talk about my own “American” experience, which has far more to do with my growing up in suburban New Jersey than with my mother’s family being Irish potato famine immigrants.

Whether or not it was true, it looked to me that my colleagues’ stories were, for the most part, more “authentic” than my own — they seemed to be answering these questions for the first time, and saying something “real,” rather than just rattling off the stories they’d told to themselves and their friends a billion times before. I realized immediately, even as I was having this thought, that it probably wasn’t true; it was just that since I was hearing their stories for the first time, they seemed more spontaneous.

I began to think, while walking home, that it would be a very interesting exercise to try to write one’s autobiography — or even just bits of it — completely without the help of one’s familiar store of stories about oneself. That is, to try to dig up and put into words the parts of your life that you’d never put into words before, not even to yourself. It may be that I’m an academic and a writer, or it may just be that I’m a human and everybody does this, but I am constantly, constantly telling myself stories about myself. Even as I know that I’m fictionalizing and oversimplifying, it’s helpful and reassuring to be able to trace certain kinds of continuity, to be able to say “I presently feel this way because of these other things that happened in the past” and “I did that terrible thing because I couldn’t help it, that is the kind of thing I have always done, but at least I did it less terribly this time.”

I suspect that, the farther back I tried to reach in my past without the aid of my stories, the less I would find. From my elementary school years, I don’t think there’s a single thing my mind could touch that is not already part of my Grand Narrative. But from middle school, and certainly later, there must be things lurking in my mind that are not crystallized into words in the same way that the more “important” events are.

I recently gave a paper at a conference on excess and obsession, which is one reason why I’ve been driven to think about the above things. In a lot of ways, the most illuminating panel at the conference turned out to be the one I had most snickered about to my friends beforehand: the panel on fandom. What the fandom scholars were able to articulate that the more traditional scholars (myself included) were not was, more or less, that what we are talking about when we are talking about “excess,” in any kind of literary/cultural way, is emotion, and that emotion is embarrassing. When you’re a Trekkie, a Xenaphile, or an emo kid, you are identifying with an emotional attachment that is viewed with skepticism by the rest of society because of its publicness and because of its fervor. It seems to me that we are generally expected, these days, to have our emotions quietly and at home. (And hasn’t this always been the case? With the brief subcultural exception of the Summer of Love?)

Many of the conference participants, in other words, seemed to be coding “excess” as “authentic,” to be buying into the idea that that which is unarticulated is unspoiled in much the same vein as my autobiography speculations above. This was particularly true of the queer theorists, at least two of whom focused on queer reading practice as something that draws on textual possibilities rather than textual actualities to move toward an imagined utopian future that is acknowledged as imagined, and yet still must be imagined.

I found their frankness about possibility very helpful. There probably are parts of my life that I haven’t articulated to myself, but the minute I discover them I begin to articulate them, and they become assimilated into the already-existing Grand Narrative, becoming just more examples of this or that Trend In My Life At That Time. Perhaps the only way these parts of my history can have power is as possibilities, as dark corners that remain dark. One of the keynote speakers at the conference remarked that, as a writer, “one has to hide one’s intent” — when I asked him in the Q&A to elaborate, he more or less said that your intent is not going to sell books; that you have to give readers something they want, and smuggle your “real” message in the back door. I can empathize, of course. Nearly every paper in my academic career has had the secret or not-so-secret message of “please please try to love one another,” and I think I would not be exaggerating to say that many, if not most, enduring works of art have exactly this message as well. But slapping a sticker on the front of Ulysses reading “LOVE IS IN HERE” would not particularly have helped Joyce sell more copies — because, as I said, emotion is embarrassing. You have to give readers something else to tell themselves that they want: the challenge of the experimentation, the pleasure of the text, the possibility of pornography, etc.

Probably the best readings of texts are the ones that leave some of the dark places unlit. Psyche should not have lit her lamp to look on Cupid’s face, and love suffers in the labeling.

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The King of Love is Dead: The Ethics of Self-Effacement in Weil, Krishna, and MLK Jr.

January 18, 2007 at 2:27 am | Posted in attention, authorial agency, buddhism, christianity, ethics, exemplarity, gender, love, materiality, mysticism, no-self, political, sacrifice, the sacred, weil, writing | 10 Comments

First of all, I’d like to welcome Oublié Sur La Carte to the blogosphere and urge you to go check him out. His inaugural post deals with Baudelaire, writing, and memory — three of our favorite themes here at uncomplicatedly — and the lyrical prose already in evidence promises that future posts will not only be interesting, but beautiful to read.

Second of all, I’d like to make an excuse for myself. This post might have come into being a few days earlier, and been a little better researched, if the US postal service did not insist on depriving me for a week longer than promised of the books that I mailed myself from my parents’ house at the end of winter break. (Next time, I’ll use W.A.S.T.E. for sure.) So what I submit for your inspection this evening is the beginning of a theory rather than a fully worked-out one, subject to revision in future postings. On with the show.

“Let’s develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness.”
— Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Last time, I explored the idea present in both Bataille and Weil of turning one’s life into writing — both in the usual sense of writing autobiographically and in the decidedly unusual sense of making one’s life itself into a kind of message. What I would like to address today is the particular form this latter desire takes for Weil, and how understanding this desire, even if we do not share it, can help us to understand a few things about what it might mean to be ethical.

Previously I emphasized the communicative aspect of this desire, arguing that becoming a living message is a way of orienting one’s life towards others. What I glossed over, as some of you picked up in the comment thread, was the fact that Weil did not want to send her own individual message (in contrast, I would argue, to Bataille), but rather to erase herself and become simply an instrument of God. This raises a host of agency issues that date back to the Delphic Oracle and have haunted the mystical tradition ever since: If the words belong to the gods, is the oracle a poet or just a mouthpiece? Moreover, it’s a question that is profoundly gendered. It’s hard for women to rally around a figure whose fondest wish was to erase her individuality and allow the words of the patriarchal Christian God to exist in her place. Some feminist scholars reject Weil for precisely this reason, but it is my contention that to do so too hastily is to overlook important dimensions of her thought.

It’s important, first of all, to recognize the violence of Weil’s wish. It was not a feminine demurral she wanted to make, but a gruesome self-sacrifice:

Father, in the name of Christ grant me this, That I may be unable to will any bodily movement, like a total paralytic. That I may be incapable of receiving any sensation, like someone who is completely blind, deaf, and deprived of all the senses. That I may be unable to make the slightest connection between two thoughts, even the simplest, like the total idiots who not only cannot read or count but have never learned to speak. That I may be insensible to every kind of grief and joy, and incapable of any love for any being or thing, and not even for myself like old people in the last stage of decrepitude. Father, in the name of Christ grant me all this in reality.

[. . . ]

Father, since thou art Good and I am mediocrity, rend this body and soul away from me to make them into things for your use and let nothing remain of me, forever, except this rending itself, or nothingness.

Critics call this Weil’s “terrible prayer,” and it’s easy to see why. It is a wish for a kind of living death; it seems downright perverse to desire such affliction. All of us, myself included, who love life and are grateful for daily miracles such as friendship and puppies and good strong cups of tea, recoil at such a dire pronouncement. “What good,” we cry, “can come from such a naked death wish?”

Kugelmass proposed, in a recent conversation, that Weil’s desire to erase her individuality might be read as an attempt to escape the whole problem of individuality that haunts our daily ethical decisions — the problem that takes the form of the question, “But what can I do? I’m just one person.” The fantasy of making herself an instrument for God’s use, he suggested, is a fantasy of “acting sufficiently,” which no one person can ever really do.

What I would add to this formulation, then, is that the fantasy of sufficient action (that is, of actually being able to solve the world’s problems) is not simply escapist, but representative of a sincere desire to be as helpful as possible to one’s fellow human beings. In Weil’s life, this desire translated into the sort of sacrifice that nearly all of us have talked ourselves out of: she lived in bare, unheated rooms, wore shapeless black rags, and distributed nearly all her wages to the poor. By contrast, at a talk I attended once, radical ethicist Peter Singer was asked by an audience member whether he owned CDs and responded in the affirmative. Viewed in this light, Weil’s desire for self-effacement begins to seem less like a tragically misguided death wish and more like a rigorous ethics carried to the logical conclusions that most of us do not have the stomach for.

Her schoolmates called her “the categorical imperative in skirts.” But it’s important to note that Weil’s desire to become a “living metaphor” was not a desire to lead by heroic example; remember that she wanted to erase herself. She wanted “to be only an intermediary between the uncultivated ground and the plowed field, between the data of a problem and the solution, between the blank page and the poem, between the starving beggar and the beggar who has been fed.” This is extremely suggestive of the extinguishing of selfhood that one finds in Hindu and Buddhist philosophy, and it’s no coincidence: Weil could read Sanskrit, and refers to the Bhagavad Gita and several Buddhist sutras frequently in her notebooks.

In eastern philosophy, the extinguishing of selfhood is associated with the shattering of delusions. Only when you overcome your desires, fears, worries, joys, etc — all of the things that make you you — can you transcend your individual perspective and see the reality of the universe. This kind of total enlightenment is extremely difficult to obtain and takes most people many lifetimes to achieve; for practical purposes, it is a distant horizon toward which one aims. What one does on a day to day basis, according many Buddhist and Hindu practices, is simply learn to sit perfectly still and quiet one’s mind. But this is not a purely negative effort; in most of these practices, what you are concentrating on is not nothing, but your own breathing. The idea is that you stop multitasking at last. You practice breathing with perfect attention, and with cultivation this attention can be turned toward more complex objects: people, problems.

This pure attention is what Weil strives for, at bottom, in her drive toward self-effacement. Her reading of the command to love thy neighbor is remarkable. She writes of the beaten man lying by the side of the road in the parable of the good Samaritan that he is “deprived of human personality . . . [he is] only a little piece of flesh, naked, inert, and bleeding beside a ditch; he is nameless; no one knows anything about him.” The priest and the Levite pass by without stopping, and what the Samaritan does is “give his attention all the same to this absent humanity.” This act of creative attention, imagining humanity where there is none, is the Samaritan’s true accomplishment; the actions which follow, Weil writes, are just the “automatic effect” of this attention, which is fundamentally “a renunciation.”

From a purely Buddhist perspective, the line connecting attention to renunciation is easy to draw. Though Weil was aware of this perspective, in the essay in question (“Forms of the Implicit Love of God,” available in the collection Waiting for God) as in all her “public” writing, she is working within the western Christian tradition and writing to a western Christian audience. This is how she formulates it:

Whatever a man may want, in cases of crime as in those of the highest virtue, in the minutest preoccupations as in the greatest designs, the essence of his desire always consists in this, that he wants above all things to be able to exercise his will freely. To wish for the existence of this free consent in another, deprived of it by affliction, is to transport oneself into him; it is to consent to affliction oneself. It is to deny oneself. In denying oneself, one becomes capable under God of establishing someone else by a creative affirmation. One gives oneself in ransom of the other. It is a redemptive act.

The implied comparison is, of course, to Christ. How did God save mankind? By coming down here and suffering among us. He’s God, he’s magic — presumably he could have just erased original sin with a wave of his hand. But the reason he doesn’t do it is the same reason it’s not sufficient just to toss a handful of change to the man by the side of the road: when we use the forces at our disposal to help somebody in need, we do not uplift or change him. In fact, we continue to deprive him of the ability to exercise his will freely — what happens to him is what we choose to have happen to him. The way Weil sees it, God chose instead to pay attention to us — and he didn’t just sit up there in paradise listening to us bitch, either; he came down here and bled and loved and lost and wept, so he could really understand what we were talking about. He gave himself up for us, gave up that which made him God (namely, his immunity to such suffering) in order to feel what we feel. We should, Weil argues, imitate Christ and strive to lose ourselves in attention to the suffering of others. The actions which follow will be automatic.

Eric O. Springsted, to whom I owe some of the insights in the above paragraph, points out in Simone Weil and the Suffering of Love that while Weil spills a great deal of ink over the crucifixtion, the resurrection does not figure very prominently in her theology. While Springsted is sure, and I am mostly sure, that she believed in Christ’s resurrection, it seems that this omission was deliberate. If one pays attention to the resurrection instead of the suffering and death of Christ, one risks modeling one’s behavior on entirely the wrong thing: the vain hope for eternal selfhood rather than the infinite compassion of sacrifice, the renunciation of that selfhood. The King of Love, as it were, must be a dead one.

This brings us to the work of another Simone: Nina. On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, a DJ on my local college radio station played a song written by Gene Taylor, Simone’s bassist, after receiving the news of Dr. King’s assassination. “Why? (The King of Love is Dead)” is a simple song with forthright lyrics, exactly the sort of thing you might scratch down in the throes of grief, but Simone’s voice gives it enormity. The performance on the album Nuff Said was recorded just three days after King’s death:

Turn the other cheek, he’d plead,
Love thy neighbor was his creed,
Pain, humiliation, death he did not dread

[. . .]

‘Cause he’d seen the mountain top
And he knew he could not stop
Always living with the threat of death ahead

If you were unaware of the context, for the first three verses of this song you might very well think it was a song about Christ. It’s not until verse four that you get “with his Bible at his side” whose anachronicity would cause you to question this assumption, and not until verse six that King is named explicitly. The pun in the final line, which is also the title of the song, hardly registers as such: it is a song about both men. Hearing it made me realize that King, Christ, and Weil all understood that to stand up to the forces of oppression, even if it’s just to help a man by the side of the road, is to fundamentally imperil yourself.

The epigraph to this post was taken from King’s final speech, “I See the Promised Land” (to which I was pointed by — who else? — Kugelmass, after describing to him the above song). Its major subject is, uncannily enough, the specter of King’s own death. He starts by describing the tour through famous revolutions he might make if God gave him the chance to live at any time in history, declaring that in spite of all those past victories, there is no time he would rather have lived than his own, the mid-twentieth century on the verge of a civil rights revolution. He then discusses an attempt that was made on his life earlier in his career — apparently he was stabbed just above the heart and it was rather miraculous that he lived. He declares how glad he is to have survived that attack and witnessed the victories of the early 1960s, and then he concludes the speech this way:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

While this statement contains a Weilian wish to “just” do God’s will, you might point out that King seems to be accepting death here rather than seeking it. I would reply: was what he did not suicide? The man got death threats practically every day of his life. He was not seeking death for its own sake, but for the good it could do to others — in this, Weil is no different. She cuts a grim figure, but she does so in order to remind us of the importance of real sacrifice: the squalid, all-too-real kind rather than the idealized kind that leads to a sort of immortality.

So no: I don’t think that Weil’s desire for self-effacement is morbid, and I don’t think it’s antifeminist. When she makes her life into a message, she erases her authorship in order to be pure communication, all outward-turning with no inward-turning, all love with no ego. Weil has been to a mountaintop all her own — it’s not quite King’s mountaintop, and not quite Christ’s either, but it’s definitely on the same map.

The Writing Life

January 10, 2007 at 10:16 am | Posted in bataille, ethics, exemplarity, love, meta, metaphor, mysticism, political, sacrifice, the sacred, weil, writing | 14 Comments

“Possible loves — are for fools — the wise have — impossible loves.”
— Simone Weil

In my last post, I talked about “reverse graffiti” as a template for my New Year’s resolutions. The idea I was professing back there — “I should make of my life a message” — was not my own. I have been reading Alexander Irwin’s Saints of the Impossible: Bataille, Weil, and the Politics of the Sacred, and it is his central claim that the primary way in which Georges Bataille and Simone Weil, whose philosophies are enormously opposed, resemble one another is that both stage themselves as sacred beings who tried to fuse their lives with their writings, to live their messages, to be living messages, in order to destabilize the destructive political paradigms of the second World War. What I hope to explain in this post is how this idea has been helping me think about blogs, which are now — unsurprisingly — something I think about a great deal.

Like many things these days, my interest in Bataille is Kugelmass‘s fault. About two months ago I told him I was thinking of writing about Weil for my political theology class, and he wanted to know if I’d read Bataille’s Blue of Noon in which Weil appears as a central character. I hadn’t, so I did, and now I find myself down a long, dark Bataille/Weil tunnel from which this will represent the first of probably several postings.

I’ve loved Weil for a long time. She was born a German Jew in 1909, raised as an agnostic in Paris, and converted to Christianity later in life but refused baptism for complicated reasons. She preferred to be an outsider saint, sitting at the threshold and pushing people in — she couldn’t bear the thought of taking sanctuary in a community of the saved while so many people suffered outside the church. During WWII, she tried to convince the Free French movement to allow her to organize and spearhead a group of battlefield nurses, who would go out on the front lines and administer emergency first aid to the wounded right in the midst of combat. They relegated her to a desk job where she contracted tuberculosis and exacerbated it by writing furiously — 800 typed pages in the last 4 months of her life — and by refusing to eat more than the rations of her beloved Parisians in occupied France. She died in 1943 at 34 years of age. Her theology is as unique as it is shocking: “Whenever I think of Christ on the cross, I commit the sin of envy.”

Weil’s obsession with self-sacrifice is well-known, but it’s difficult to figure out what to make of it. Some suggest she was simply insane, but this is clearly dismissive. (Was Beethoven insane? Who cares?) Others point out the bizarre futility of her death, claiming that because her convictions led to such an eminently pointless demise, they must not have had much political relevance. Irwin aims to rescue her from these accusations by suggesting that Weil intended her life and her death to be a sort of text, affecting the world through the power of metaphor. Weil wrote that her goal was to “make of life itself the supreme poetry.” Furthermore, at the beginning of WWII, she wrote, “Our propaganda cannot be made of words; to be effective it would have to be composed of dazzling realities.” That these are not exactly the same thing will be dealt with a little later.

Bataille’s philosophy was about as opposed to Weil’s as you can get: she proclaimed herself on the path of good, and he proclaimed himself on the path of evil. Bataille was an atheist and a libertine, obsessed with sacrifice in the form of unproductive expenditure (orgy, carnival, etc). Weil’s sacrifices, by contrast, were always utilitarian — though her death may have looked pointless, in her mind it both set an example and exposed the horror of war. But between 1932 and 1934, the political commitments of these divergent thinkers led them both to be associated with La Critique social, a dissident leftist journal, and with Boris Souvarine’s Cercle communiste démocratique. Their writings, both public and private, respond to each other with passionate hostility during this period, and the Cercle did not hold together for long. In 1935, Bataille wrote Blue of Noon in which the character of Lazare is a clear portrait of Weil. The main character, who is quite autobiographical, finds himself both attracted to and repulsed by Lazare’s deathly demeanor which makes such a contrast with his own exuberant vice.

During the war, Bataille’s behavior was almost diametrically opposed to Weil’s. He abruptly stopped writing political treatises, declaring “I will not speak of war, but of mystical experience.” He withdrew into himself, writing extensively about his meditative exercises and the pleasures of the flesh. Irwin characterizes this vividly: “While millions died on the battlefields and in concentration camps, the bloodiest event depicted in Bataille’s confessional prose was a painful tooth extraction.” Weil, by contrast, was trying her hardest to be allowed onto the battlefield and was producing pages upon pages of political tracts and proposals for the Free French movement. Irwin’s argument is that Bataille’s public display of uselessness was ultimately a form of protest not unlike Weil’s. He objected to the war not by actively fighting it, but by refusing to engage with it — but what he shared with Weil was threefold: firstly, a conviction that the sacred could provide an alternative vocabulary with which to address the present catastrophe; secondly, a drive for self-annihilation; thirdly, his medium, which was both his writing and his life.

In this post, which is already quite long, I will concentrate mostly on this third convergence. In the future, you can count on missives addressing sacredness and self-effacement. I am not nearly as versed in Bataille as I am in Weil, so please forgive me if the following is clumsy or inaccurate.

Bataille was not a pacifist. In fact, he saw in violence a supreme opportunity for people to confront death as the ultimate truth of life. This seems to have a lot to do with quasi-Buddhist ideas of impermanence: only by accepting and truly understanding the impermanence of the world and of oneself can one properly appreciate and experience the present moment. But the problem Bataille had with war is that, while actually engaged in battle, one is not able to achieve a sufficiently reflective consciousness for the violence to be of any spiritual use. The person who can achieve this level of reflection is the writer. Writing is bound up with violence in a number of ways for Bataille, not least of which is — ironically — its inadequacy to experience. To write is to lacerate experience, to tear it to pieces and rob it of its vitality. And yet this is the only way we can really understand it.

What is needed, then, is a way for experience and writing to compliment each other and be part of the same thing. Neither by itself will do. Irwin describes Bataille’s project this way:

What Bataille sought to present was not a set of ethical propisitions or radically coordinated political theses, but rather a style of life that, considered as a (lacerated but living) whole, offered an alternative to the values and forms of existence that had found their culmination in totalitarian oppression and war. The life of mysticism and expenditure Bataille proposed could not, he claimed, be adequately described in the language of philosophical, social scientific, or political discourse. This mode of life could only be grasped in its realization (performance) in the exemplary being: the mystical writer, Bataille himself.

The alternative Bataille offered was an experience of the self as sacred. His mystical texts were often meant to be guidebooks to lead his readers to a similar experience, which according to Irwin constituted a basis of effective resistance to political tyranny. Similarly, Weil espoused the importance of a concept she called “real metaphor” (la métaphore réalle). She writes, “the story of Christ is a symbol, a metaphor. But in other times it was believed that metaphors occur as events in the world.” She advocates a return to a mindset wherein events, and not just words, are charged with complex meaning, and she wishes for her life to be such an event.

Reading all of this reminded me of an exchange I recently had with my friend _swallow on the subject of my decision to begin my “serious” blogging under a new, semi-anonymous internet identity. She wrote:

I only really care about the intellectual ideas that people share online when they’re visibly attached to such an “I”, and attached via narrative. Part of this is my hungry gossipy interest in other people’s selves, and my inability to separate personality from insight (I was stuck fawning on Cynthia Ozick’s rapturous prose, for example, while my classmates tore apart the conclusions of her essays). But gee! it seems to me that although I probably should learn to separate them a little more, narrative and philosophy– personality and intellect– art and criticism– the two are more like different glosses on the same thing than truly different things. And to privilege “one” above the “other” is therefore doubly a mistake.

Scott Eric Kaufman’s recent musings at Acephalous on academic blogging, and particularly the talk he delivered at an MLA panel on the subject, have got me thinking about what appears to be a fairly consistent crisis for bloggers, namely: how am I going to justify my online existence today? _swallow appears to be on the trail of an answer, which also might have been Weil’s and Bataille’s answer, namely: your life should justify your writing, and vice-versa. We read blogs instead of books for recreation because we are interested in people, not just ideas. In blogs, lives become texts, unfolding almost in real time.

If one impulse behind transforming one’s life into a “real metaphor” is a wish to avoid the lacerating inadequacy of language via producing propaganda composed of “dazzling realities,” we still need to consider the other side of life-writing: writing life. Weil’s desire to “make of life itself the supreme poetry” is also a desire to complicate life, to turn life into the messiness of language and, above all, to orient her life toward others.

Why does this matter? Bataille writes,

It is in [the writer] and through him that man learns how he himself remains forever elusive, being essentially unpredictable, and how knowledge must finally be resolved into the simplicity of emotion. It is in and through the writer that existence, in a general way, is what a girl is to the man who desires her, whether she love or spurn him, bring him pleasure or despair.

Well. Patriarchal paradigms aside, what is a person to another who desires him or her? A horizon, an uncharted but enticing territory. In the fusion of writing and life, things are not pinned down like dead butterflies to the page. Words and realities flutter freely, sometimes touching and sometimes floating apart. In the gaps: the sacred — vast and silent.

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.

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