I wanted to put a post here, at this moment in time, as a stay against time, a last chance to claim a plot of land in the Obama Era. Here the calendar will never flip, the date will always be January 19th, 2017. Let this be a temporal refuge, a homestead on the far edge of the civilized world, the warm place in mind that sustains us through our icy travails. A spike driven into the living stone on the edge of the abyss, anchoring from above.
Maybe I can go past today, maybe. But I like to know that I don’t have to. WordPress calls it editing; I call it time travel.
Polar explorer Dagmar Freuchen (often misidentified as margarine heiress Magdalene Vang Lauridsen) and her husband Peter, a Vogue fashion illustrator.
I don’t think I have any substance to follow up the title of this post, unless I think of something before I end it. Neither soul-mates nor forgetting hold any interest for me at the moment, but it seemed like a good phrase, a suitable title for something. “Soon” is interesting. The quality of soonfulness, the sonority of “soon”, the modest beauty of it. It is a good word to meditate on. Don’t think about time, time won’t get you anywhere, but soon can be a revelation. You can feel the flow of things in soon. All promise and all sadness. Soon. Soon enough.
Now, as I write and pause from writing, I am getting some good things from soon. They haven’t all arrived yet, there is a haze in the middle distance, but I feel sure that before long soon will make me its adept, reveal itself, turn in my mind like a planet or most longed-for someone, and I will know. And then I may have things to tell you, not like now. Just wait.
‘Soul-mate soon forgotten’ also makes me think of a poem by Louis MacNeice, itself about love and time and the holding of the one in the other or the letting go, but in a very different way:
Time was away and somewhere else,
There were two glasses and two chairs
And two people with the one pulse
(Somebody stopped the moving stairs)
Time was away and somewhere else.
And they were neither up nor down;
The stream’s music did not stop
Flowing through heather, limpid brown,
Although they sat in a coffee shop
And they were neither up nor down.
The bell was silent in the air
Holding its inverted poise –
Between the clang and clang a flower,
A brazen calyx of no noise:
The bell was silent in the air.
The camels crossed the miles of sand
That stretched around the cups and plates;
The desert was their own, they planned
To portion out the stars and dates:
The camels crossed the miles of sand.
Time was away and somewhere else.
The waiter did not come, the clock
Forgot them and the radio waltz
Came out like water from a rock:
Time was away and somewhere else.
Her fingers flicked away the ash
That bloomed again in tropic trees:
Not caring if the markets crash
When they had forests such as these,
Her fingers flicked away the ash.
God or whatever means the Good
Be praised that time can stop like this,
That what the heart has understood
Can verify in the body’s peace
God or whatever means the Good.
Time was away and she was here
And life no longer what it was,
The bell was silent in the air
And all the room one glow because
Time was away and she was here.
“Not an extreme instance of Blackmurian prose, this passage nonetheless shows what I mean by a style not merely instrumental. Many of its epiphanies are gained only in writing and from among the accruing possibilities of the words, not messages to be delivered but possibilities waiting to be discovered just under the surface or aslant from it.”
“Blackmur is not dealing with ideas and trying to find words and sentences to deliver them; he stays alert to the possibilities disclosed in the stir of the words. The true decision arises between the words. Normally, the first law of language is thought to be necessity, and possibility is entertained only as a grace note. But Blackmur makes space in which the possibilities are tempted to occur.”
— Denis Donoghue, Ferocious Alphabets
I don’t spend much time writing, but I spend a great deal of time, every day, on expository interior monologues. I am good at it. Communicating to no one I communicate well, and I think I come up with some worthwhile content. I would be very pleased if I could simply enunciate those monologues in either speech or writing. But the frustrating truth is that the actual acts of speaking and writing, in their different ways, offer a degree of impedance, of friction, that wrecks the fluency of my purely mental production. In the case of speech this seems like pure loss, an actuality always lesser than the mind’s potential. But with writing the situation is different. On the one hand, even if I can’t get the fluency of thought transmitted directly through my keystrokes, I should be able, with a little extra work, to re-create that fluency in my prose, or something like it, something even better. On the other hand, in writing I find that the friction offers positive possibilities along with the stickiness and stutter, room for play and imagination, the chance to discover what language has to offer beyond a subservience to my intention. A fruitful confusion. If I were a disciplined writer, a purposeful writer, maybe even a paid writer, I might pursue the first option. But I am not.
So I was thrilled to read Donoghue’s discussion of the prose of the critic R. P. Blackmur, from which I pulled the two quotes above. That is the kind of writing that tempts me, that offers pleasure, unleashes energies within me, unlocks unsuspected passions. It’s the fun of it. Like with a lot of fun things, it can get weird, uncertain, risking embarrassment. But at least you get the experience. And sometimes it produces as a residue something worthwhile that could not have been achieved any other way.
I do often have a desire to go at things straight, to write instrumentally in service of an already conceived idea, not to be waylaid by the allure of words and their rhythms or stopped by a stray thought. But what a tedious chore that can be! I find the writing of simple business emails painful work with often inept results. Pro writers often affect a pose of stern discipline. The talk of “killing your darlings” and how “good writing is re-writing”. And maybe I would be willing to kill some darlings and sweat revisions if I were to get some tangible rewards from it. Money, love, glory, or a good hot meal. But not for nothing. The unremunerated must self-indulge.
But self-indulgence can have a rigor of its own.
Note: I don’t mean to imply anything at all about Blackmur here. I think I read some of his essays years ago. Donoghue makes me think I should check him out again. There is a wonderful portrait of the man written by Russell Fraser. It includes this anecdote from a student of his, the author Geoffrey Wolff:
Having completed a first novel, he went to Blackmur for sympathetic counsel. “Put it in your desk drawer,” Blackmur said. This, Wolff supposed, was the old Horatian chestnut. Leave the manuscript alone for a while, then come back to it fresh? “No,” Blackmur said, “that is not my advice to you. My advice is to put it in your desk drawer, lock your desk drawer, lose the key to your desk drawer. However, keys are sometimes found, returned to their owners. This could happen, so I would set fire to your desk.”
And whatever we do [later in life], it doesn’t seem to amount to nearly the sort of potential that we seemed to have held in the parking lot. In the parking lot, we were dynamos, whirlwinds. We were rulers. We had complete autonomy. We had it all in a world that had nothing to offer us.
— Scott Meiggs, in The Parking Lot Movie, dir. by Meghan Eckman
This post is a spin-off from a Facebook post by Jon Malesic. Jon is an unemployed theologian, currently writing a book about work, an occasional contributor to The New Republic, and a former employee of The Corner Parking Lot, appearing in the film adaptation. Add to this his time making sushi at the Tokyo Rose and his residency on Graves Street and you can see, or not, why he is widely regarded, among a small circle, as secretly cool. I look forward to reading his book and hope for its success. In this struggle we are in, whatever it is, he is one of the good guys, and by adding his voice to the public conversation he makes it just that much more like one worth having, and less like a screaming hellstorm.
In his post Jon quotes the lines above (and you really should hear them as they are spoken, I don’t know how well they come across without Meiggs’ voice in mind) and relates them to his own thinking about work and dignity.
“At some point, our potential seems limitless, and it’s tempting to pin our dignity and self-esteem to that potential. Even in middle age and beyond, it’s good to imagine that our greatest moments are in the future; without that, we have no basis for self-development. So we need to dream of our potential.
But when we do so, there’s always a catastrophe lurking ahead. For most of us, our imagination is greater than the sum of our willpower, luck, and circumstance. We don’t fulfill our potential.”
So it would be good to have something else to pin our dignity to, besides our potential.
An excellent point, which was followed lively and thoughtful discussion in comments, taking up the subject of potential and its disappointments. My own comment was at something of an angle to this, maybe because the idea of having potential in a worldly sense was always too fearful for me too entertain, the disappointment and the shame too early embedded and bone-deep to be shaken off in any flight of hope. And my refusal and resentment, against any who would put claim or judgment on such potential or its realization, or the lack thereof, too strong. What I found in Scott Meiggs’ words was counter to this, an expression of liberation. So I wrote:
To return to the original text, and the genius of Scott Meiggs, I take it to be about the joy of boundlessness, as a present experience. It is not about anticipating being dynamos, whirlwinds, rulers, but being those things at the time. Potential is not something that realizes its value at some point in the future, but presently. Living in the moment. The curious thing about living in the moment (in this fun way, not some boring mindfulness trip) is how it seems to depend on some sense of the future, of potentiality. “I can enjoy this now because there is so much more to come.” Maybe because it is not really the moment but the flow of moments that is lived in, which implies a future to flow into. All that is asked of the future is that it not be a boundary. It is not about thinking you have great things in store for you, but in not thinking you don’t have great things in store for you. This is very far from the potential solemnly discussed by educators and employers. It is lighting out for the territory, Walt Whitman, rock’n’roll. It is The Corner Parking Lot.
It took a bit of time to write this, so I thought– may as well recycle it in the blog. Elevate it from the mosquito-infested swamp of Facebook to the desolate and lonely highlands of WordPress. Also, today is a day I wanted to write something– for? in honor of? dedicated to? it is hard to say exactly– an old friend, now away, but always close within me, a permanent part of what I know it to be alive. And I did not know what to write, not until Jon Malesic brought me back to Scott Meiggs. And his words seemed just right. I can’t say I ever managed to be a dynamo or a whirlwind myself. I never had the talent for it. But notice the plural, the all-important ‘we’ and ‘us’. Sometimes I got to live in the plural, despite myself. Sometimes with her. And sometimes it was just like that. And I will never forget it.
Saying “us against the world” like we would win.
And I don’t know, maybe that was just youth, and things will never be so again, the potential fading away. Maybe or maybe not. The past tense does not mean gone, but remembered. What was, is. I feel as if I have been in a valedictory mood my whole life. And yet, during that whole span, haven’t I have been moving forward in time, and would that not make my farewells in truth greetings? To hell with the forward-lookers, piously peering into the future. You can’t see anything there. All the potential is here, in experience, which is memory, which may be love. More of that, please.
Whatever. We suffer and we die. That can’t be of any great importance. Except by way of contrast. Except because we were, or are, alive, with boundless potential, having it all even if the world has nothing to offer us.
“She must have made me a cup of tea anyhow, before she went off to place a cautionary notice next to the pond– which, by the way, has absolutely no depth whatsoever. If it were left up to me I wouldn’t put a sign next to a pond saying pond, either I would write something else, such as Pig Swill, or I wouldn’t bother at all. I know what the purpose of it is, I know it’s to prevent children from coming upon the pond too quickly and toppling in, but still I don’t quite agree with it. It’s not that I want children to fall into the pond, per se, though I can’t really see what harm it would do them; it’s that I can’t help help but assess the situation from the child’s perspective.And quite frankly I would be disgusted to the point of taking immediate vengeance if I were brought to a purportedly magical place one afternoon in late September and thereupon belted down to the pond, all by myself most likely, only to discover the word pond scrawled on a poxy piece of damp plywood right there beside it. Oh I’d be hopping. That sort of moronic busybodying happens with such galling regularity throughout childhood of course and it never ceases to be utterly vexing. One sets off to investigate you see, to develop the facility to really notice things so that, over time, and with enough practice, one becomes attuned to the earth’s embedded logos and can experience the enriching joy of moving about in deep and direct accordance with things. Yet invariably this vital process is abruptly thwarted by an idiotic overlay of literal designations and inane alerts so that the whole terrain is obscured and inaccessible until eventually it is all quite formidable. As if the earth were a colossal and elaborate deathtrap. How will I ever make my home here if there are always these meddlesome scaremongering signs everywhere I go.”
–from Pond, by Claire-Louise Bennett
I have quoted this passage because I love it, and it seems perfect by itself, but one thing does give me pause: that from a novel entitled Pond I have selected a passage concerning a pond. I would have preferred to avoid that clumsy rhyme. The title certainly does give us a hint that this passage may be of particular importance, there is no way around that. It is not as if the whole thing were full of pond-talk; there is only one other noteworthy pond occurrence that I recall. You should read the book, it is excellent, and then you can contemplate the place of the pond in Pond for yourself, if you like, but you probably won’t really care, being too much in the grip of the enthrallment and puzzlement of your reading for such English-classy considerations. Clear out some mental space for this one, the time and space to sink into it without distraction and irritable self-attendance. I failed to do that and botched the job, slighting and skimming, knowing I left most of the good food uneaten. I don’t really know what the hell was going on toward the end. I would like to read it again, read it better, but of course there is so much to read and not enough time, not nearly enough time. Maybe my awareness of that fact is what has made me such a poor reader. The panic of living in a burning library.