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The Stir of the Words

“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.”



Live. Park. Die.

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.

A Pond in a Burning Library

“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.


Charles Frédéric Soehnée

dragonCharles-Frédéric Soehnée

Another Helping of Smullyan


“Imagine a group of four people, each of whom is strenuously engaged in some charity work or some useful social or political activities, each from purely altruistic motives. Someone asks them: “Why do you work so hard helping your fellow man?” We get the following responses: The first says, “I regard it as my duty and moral obligation to help my fellow man”. The second replies: “Moral obligations? To hell with moral obligations! It’s just that I’ll be God damned if I will stand around seeing my fellow man oppressed without my doing something about it!” The third replies: “I also have never been very much concerned with things like duties or moral obligations. It’s just that I feel extremely sorry for these people and long to help them”. The fourth says: “Why to I act as I do? To tell you the truth, I have absolutely no idea why. It is simply my nature to act as I act, and that’s all I can say.

I should like to compare these four responses. The last one delights me utterly! He seems very Taoistic or Zen-like. He is the true Sage or saint who seems completely in harmony with the Tao. He is the one who is completely natural,spontaneous and unself-consciously helpful. If there is a God, I hope he lets him into heaven first! Close at his heels, I hope, would be the third man. He strikes me as sort of Buddhistic– not “moral” but compassionate, though perhaps a little too self-consciously so.

It is of interest to compare the first and second men. Both are being ego-assertive, but what a difference! The second, though somewhat gruff, is really kind of charming and humorous. He strike me as a “tough man with a heart of gold” (like some of the roles played by Humphrey Bogart). He is really a very sympathetic person who somehow ashamed to admit the fact and does not wish to appear sentimental.If I were God, I would, of course, let him into heaven too.

But the first man! Good heavens, what a monstrosity! I’m sorry to offend those readers brought up in a puritanical tradition, but I can no more help feeling as I feel than you can. People like the first man are so often pompous, vain ego-assertive, puritanical, inhuman, self-centered, dominating and unsympathetic. They are the people who act out of “principles”. In a way, they are even worse than people who don’t help others at all! Now if I were God, I would, of course, let him into heaven too, but not for awhile! I would first send him back to earth for a a few years for a little more “discipline”.

Some pragmatic readers may well say:”Why this emphasis on how a person phrases it; does it not really all come to the same thing? Isn’t the important thing how helpfully a person acts rather than his motives or reasons for doing so?” My answer is “No”. I feel that if people’s actions are helpful, but engaged in the wrong spirit, they can–in the long run–be as harmful as no helpful actions at all. I guess I have been very influenced by the Chinese proverb: “When the wrong man does the right thing, it usually turns out wrong”.”

–from The Tao Is Silent, by Raymond Smullyan

Of all the writers I have read, Smullyan remains, for me, the greatest breath of fresh air. I love him completely.


An Emotionally Pluralistic Bloomsday Greeting


Drawing of Bloom by Joyce


(Her hand slides into his left trouser pocket and brings out a hard black shrivelled potato. She regards it and Bloom with dumb moist lips.)

Since Bloomsday encompasses the whole of human experience, and possibly beyond, the conventional “Happy Bloomsday” address never seems entirely adequate. Obviously, if you are bringing up your child the Bloomian Way, it is entirely appropriate to start with such simple sweet sentiments. But a properly observed Bloomsday contains far more than mere happiness. In my experience it is one of the saddest days of the year as well. And if it were not for sadness, why would anyone waste their time with literature?

I am currently living in central-air-conditioned exile in Hogwaller, by the livestock market and the sewage treatment plant, just up from the bottomlands of Charlottesville, out of the sight of Jeffersonian hilltoppers. There are no bookstores here, no libraries, no cafes with Wi-Fi; no museums, pubs, maternity hospitals, pork butchers, schools, cab-shelters, or whorehouses. And very few Irish people. But here too roams the spirit of the Bloom. And where you are. And wherever the mind may be.

Bloomsday extends itself beyond all supposed felicities, of place or of state.

Wishes of happiness may be innocent enough, but they risk an awful exclusivity. Should we not also honor the sad Bloomsday, the angry Bloomsday, the nervous Bloomsday the peevish and perverse Bloomsday, the Bloomsday of confusion doubt exhaustion boredom & itch? This is not a holiday from heaven, but fully earth-begotten. Out of the blooming buzzing confusion of the mind of an Irishman and an exile. Into the minds of readers innumerable, in moods innumerable: some wretched, some exalting; some tepid, some ball-tripping; some smooth-grooving, some hot-jazzing; some Canadian, some not Canadian.

So this year, out of a respect for pluralism and the awesome abundance of the soul, I will not say “Happy Bloomsday”. Instead I will leave you with:

Season’s Greetings!

The Coward Party

I do not know if attaching this label to the Republican Party would be politically effective. Maybe not, and in politics efficacy is all. But at the very least it both true and satisfying. Republicans are always trying to make cowards of us all. They feed on fear. It might be said that Democrats also try to raise fears that suit their politics — I remember the old charge “scaring seniors about Social Security” —  but even when that may be true there is a huge qualitative difference between the two parties’ approach to fear, that goes beyond the opinion, which I hold, that the things Democrats want us to worry about are generally a lot more worth worrying about than the things Republicans want us to worry about. To try to get people concerned enough about an issue that they support ameliorative action is different than stoking the atavistic fears of reaction.

Republicans are not wrong in understanding where there interest lies. There is abundant research, as well as ordinary observation, to show that when people feel that their basic security is threatened they become more politically conservative. There are studies showing that even just being just being reminded of the fact of death has this effect on people. (Though I hope at least some are sensible enough to have the opposite reaction — aware that they must eventually lose everything, they might be all the more eager to approach life in an open-handed, welcoming, generous spirit. Death makes a mockery of misers.)

So fear is the tool of the party, courage the enemy, cowardice the victory. The Coward Party.

Now let me say right here that I am not a brave man. If someone wanted to call me a coward I would find it a bit cruel but I could not actually object to the characterization. So I would not be one to cast stones when it comes to facing fearsome things in a person’s actual lived experience, things like heights, horses, cancer, stinging or biting insects, police officers, children, people who are looking at you, dentistry, clowns, a broken heart or suspicious meat. Faced with such real terrors, I can only sympathize with those whose courage fails them.

But when we talk politics it is a whole different thing. Faced with a homicidal gunman in an enclosed space who among us can be sure we wouldn’t join the coward party, if we were so heartless and arrogant as to attach that label to anyone in that situation?  But just hearing the news about a homicidal gunman in an enclosed space, while eating your breakfast far away in the safety of your home — there is no excuse for spinelessness there, no excuse for panic, no excuse for debasing yourself with ugly emotion and fearful accusation, no excuse for sacrificing principle for the sake of a safety that, in actual fact, you are currently already enjoying. That is the kind of cowardice that I am talking about, and it does not deserve sympathy.

There is a difference between the courage we have as individual organisms and the courage we have as members of a public, as citizens. The different is the second kind is a hell of a lot easier to achieve. There is no excuse for not having it. The biology of fear does not imply a politics of fear. That is something that is created. The Republican party wants to create it.We should not let them succeed.  We should have a public discourse that rises above fear, to achieve a position from which we can actually address the substance of human life, including the real fears that thwart it, and make the best we can of it. In this way we can all be a little better than cowards.

Note: this post alludes to the then recent nightclub shooting in Orlando, but it could as well be something else. There are always terrors to exploit.