Saturday, February 14, 2009

Inventing new ways of being, or not…

“Why don’t you do something more useful and productive?”

He’d worked on Skylab back in the day, was old enough to be my father, was related, and felt he had a right to condescend, regardless of the fact he was in my home, eating my food, drinking my coffee, etc. He’s a professor of mathematics and was criticizing my compulsion for writing. To do him justice would require a novel, which may happen, but for now let’s just say…

Back in the mid-1960s when he was pursuing his doctorate at Harvard, he was visiting our house for a cookout. It was late summer, early autumn, I’m not sure. There was a chill in the air, I do remember that. Everyone was in sweaters and sweatshirts. As we chatted, my relative, our hero, picked up a jart and wandered over to the side of our above ground aluminum sided swimming pool that was only three feet deep. No one paid much attention as our hero began anointing the pool with the jart, flicking its tip toward the water surface the way the pope might his wand toward some mass of people he’s blessing. It was my father, hip to my relative’s oddities, who looked up to see where he was and spotted him by the pool. Before my father could shout his name, our hero flicked the jart into the pool at a precise trajectory, breaking the surface of the water and responding to the sudden drag according to his calculations [which he proudly announced to our shock and awe a few moments later], trajecting downward and through the lining at the bottom of the pool. Good God. The water was 62 degrees. I know that because Dad repeated it repeatedly for years. We have pictures of the picnic and my dad in his plaid swim trunks going into the pool to administer an emergency patch so the pool wouldn’t flood out onto the picnic, while our hero looked sheepishly on wearing a windbreaker and black turtleneck, feebly attempting to explain the value of what he’d just accomplished to my furious Pop and mystified relatives.

There are other stories, but this jackass professor relative of mine has been something of a laughingstock in the family my whole life, since he’s old enough, as I said, to be my father. And I would also like to say he is fictional. I have no such relative. But if I did this would be true. He would also have Asperger Syndrome, be beautiful, making us a bunch of cruel-farted arses.

I imagine people like him or her wanting to know why people like me don’t do something more useful and productive. Meanwhile I imagine how much less damage they might have done had they been less useful and productive to the system they still automatically cling to, having successfully re-populated their rungs via breeding.

But the fact is, or seems to be, despite my digressions to the contrary, it doesn’t really matter, or didn’t really matter, no, still doesn’t, regardless of what’s actually going on around them. Their lives seam, untouched as yet by anything outside their minds. Their anxiety is interior, located in the threats they’re perceiving to their perceptions of comfortable, convenient ways of living that justify their non-negotiable thoughts their bedrock feelings justify, or at least still try to validate with varying degrees of success, tragedy and/or whatnot.

I don’t know. As I said, I’m just imagining these people, trying to find a way to love them if a failure at trying to come to some under-standing or over-standing or with-standing with or of them refuses to take shape in terms I know, or perhaps, in forms I don’t, yet still in shapes I can deal or play with, using or manipulating, maybe even profiting from…I don’t know and have serious doubts about my general ignorance. I’m simply trying to relate myself to the things I’m imagining. All I know in this regard is what I think I feel about what seems to be missing. Context is actually trans-text to a lesser degree. Context is whatever’s missing from the trans-text in the present tense, which is to say my tense…my angle and aspect. I am the eye of the storm, being everything It seems not. So what I don’t know now seems related to what I know elsewhere then. Or not, perhaps.

Thus mystified, I perused this interesting piece—On Bolano–in the latest issue of N + 1 magazine that asks why we should read Bolano at all “if these empty Chinese boxes constitute the only goods…?” By “empty Chinese boxes” the author is, in my opinion, referring to the authors/poets absented from Bolano’s texts whose characters go on mythical quests for…the writer’s physicality seams the missing elemental essence of their lives…which they’re perceiving, for better and worse, as their minds, distinct from the matter and energy comprising their cognition or awareness.

And again, I hear that question, the one the writer of that article has presumably asked herself outside the article in thought-feelings relative to it: “Why don’t you do something more useful and productive than read and comment on Roberto Bolano?” What use is it reading him? What do I gain from his skewerings of the jart trajectors, the abundantly literate do-nothings, eviscerating them, exposing their profound emptiness, shattering the delusional productions of their lives?

The writer/reader senses her reading/writing, seaming somehow that proverbial thing Itself. I read, lying [writing] somewhere in the seam between a world in which literature is everything, and another world in which it doesn’t have any meaning at all. She writes that in Bolano’s literary world, the characters “can’t conceive any redemption…except through the production of masterpieces. Masterpieces, however, are always unlikely, and redemption impossible” [in the literary and non-literary worlds alike]. So says the author of this interesting N + 1 ditty, in my opinion.

Thinking about these things, my mind wandered to Marquez, and I pulled 100 Years of Solitude down from the bookshelf. Upon the inside flap, I had written:

“Memory is how one imagines their histories…space-time is a byproduct of human cognition…Solitude is to Life what Death is to at-one-ment. Life is individuation, a movement out of Eden, away from magical wilder-ness toward disenchanted civilization. In this moment and each moment after that the increasing equilibrium of entropy overtakes the disequilibrium of chaos that maintains a being’s autonomy. The feedback loops [sacred hoops] break down. Solitude is the sensual, organic aspect of this search for a return to one’s imagined or hoped-for at-one-ment with ex-is-tence…the re-membering of hoops and re-establishment of feedback-ignited sacred loops. The recycling of names corresponds to the recycling of characters as part of the life cycle. The being is not the individual, but the family, the race’s bloodline, and by extension the species’ genome…the trajectory of seminal traces…all jizz-like sparks coming to an apocalyptic and natural end, apocalyptic in the sense these sparks are cognitive.”

It seems I was quite enthusiastic about Marquez [and still am].

So let’s try a re-cap: Some folks expect literature to be useful and productive in ways it can’t be, and the ways it can be useful aren’t very productive or useful [to them] and vice versa…at least from where these folks seem to be sitting. Therefore literature exists on the seam between literary and non-literary worlds in which it is simultaneously meaningful and meaningless, being between existence and non-existence. Literature is apocalyptic in the sense of the cognitive sparks it gives off, its brief revelations of something beyond the friction, beyond that which we’re rubbing up against.

Now how the hell does that invent a new way of being?

By emptying the struggle to escape our dark confines of its promethean-messianic aspect, exposing the taboo—the blasphemy—of such behavior via silence…a void echoing the heresies of our heroes.

The whole of literature seams a vestige of what can’t be spoken of…“a game that at a certain point,” writes Italo Calvino in The Uses of Literature, “is invested with an unexpected meaning, a meaning that is not patent on the linguistic plane on which we were working but has slipped in from another level, activating something that on that second level is of great concern to the author or his society.”

Calvino said the way we learn to accept our not so noble motives and learn to live through the ensuing crises is a way we can start inventing “new ways of being.” Bolano’s staring into the abyss of human knowledge seems a sublime negative capability in that it can handle the emptiness without taking unwise or wasteful action against it. In fact, he bathes in it. And rather than inviting the reader to join him, he’s actually joining the reader, taking a bath in the tub of literature. By staining various exteriors, shape is given to what seems to be lingering inside and outside [figure/ground] this imagined baby. Literature in Bolano’s hands seams a way of taking a cosmic bath. He seems to be turning the old Army saying “Do something, even if it’s wrong!” when you’re in combat into “Do no-thing, even if it’s wrong” as a means of ending that conflict. The friction we now make seems better.

A literature or fiction that does less, does more, perhaps.

So next time I’m asked why I don’t do anything more useful and productive, I might say because doing no-thing seams better…and that seam might seem to reveal a new way of being this.

Now why don’t you go calculate that apocalypse in your laboratory for awhile?


  1. On the other hand, some people think art is the most useful of all possible human activities. I guess my question is: what might "useful" mean? Wouldn't one have to know "ends' to be able to evaluate "means"??

  2. I think one might say art is use-less in a good way. Meaning it has no means or agency beyond its own end [after which one might use a book for a coaster], which it can only imagine, leaving us to evaluate its implications in our own solitude [which we're striving to share, it seems]. "Useful" might mean whatever we solitary users use art for in our solitude, which seems an "end" that can only be assumed by others, thus leaving us to evaluate our assumptions among ourselves. So, indeed, what might "useful" mean? That's the ultimate question for us and I think the answer may or may not lie in what we do with what we think we know. Uncertainty and some sort of in-betweenness seem to inform our need of "useful" things...the need to navigate dangerous times...but I'm not sure. Do the user's means justify his imagined ends? Can anyone actually say what is in fact "useful" amid the chaos...when the general boredom is punctuated by random tragedy? By the time something is useful, it's usually too an ambulance for someone who just died. Useful might be whatever agency arrives in time at the place we're imagining. Then again, maybe not...

    Thanks for commenting John. You nailed it on the head...

  3. "ignorance no vice, knowledge no good"