Sunday, October 28, 2007

(If you look closer you can see) The Tracks of My Train

I have been enjoying a series of novels immensely. I have to quote from one, right now, or I'll burst:
Hamlet snorted disdainfully, then thought for a moment before adding, "If the real world were a book, it would never find a publisher. Overlong, detailed to the point of distraction -- and ultimately, without a major resolution." -- Jasper Fforde, Something Rotten
That is Hamlet's impression, anyway, and I frequently explain to others that "poetic justice" doesn't mean convenient plots, but, rather, that the poem shows us, according to Aristotle, "what must or should occur" as opposed to merely what does occur ("Poetry, therefore, is a more philosophical and a higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular"), in Poetics IX.

What merely does happen is. It is what? Well, you can argue that it all has meaning, if you rise far enough above the particular. You can argue that it all makes sense, if you look at the whole society or whole world. You can argue that it makes sense in the past but never in the present. You can argue that it never means anything at all in any sense but the sense-making capabilities of the human mind.

I tend toward that last view, but with the caveat that the human mind's sense-making may be something more than delusion and illusion. Per my digression on digressions and the Big Chitlin, below (or above), I rather think that pattern matching, matrixing, and all those other dismissive words may reflect something semiotic, and not just something that represents the extension of desire. I can't be sure of this, obviously, and I cannot trust any certainty that I got of it, for the same reasons. However, it seems right to me to believe, and not to believe merely the way that the Baltimore Police Department wished me to.

I have been struggling, ever since early college, to try to understand these things. I have thought about time, in particular. Why should it disgorge meaning? I have had episodes in my life that seemed to be meaningful only in the context of having them nullified by time, but why should time's sequence also control meaning? Why should distance be necessary? I know that the difference between an ironist and an actor is the distance of commitment to meaning, the intention, in other words, and therefore the difference between a fool and a sage can be that the former is willing, while the latter is detached from things, and I recognize further that many people, having honored these elementary lessons, have shaped plans of action, personal philosophies, and social agitations on their basis. It is even the precursor lesson for some forms of self-abnegation and mysticism, for those who decide that they will dwell only among the universals and purely among the verities have to consciously reshape their consciousness to desire only that which can only ever be eternal and not existing. (N.b. I entirely agree with them that it is active and actual, but it also cannot be embodied in time. The mystic's revelation must be a general telephoning orders from the back lines of the battle.)

Some people got sick of poetic justice, of plots that make tidy parcels, of good's unrealistic rewards and vice's wishful losses, and they opted for the dynamic and utterly committed real. Their decision to adopt stream of consciousness was a rude flatus shot at the social engineers and priests of mannered behavior, as well as at the very idea of an eternal truth that perched on its peak like a vending machine, waiting for the supplicant to make a pilgrimage and plop in the proper set of questions. Never mind the desire for justice: that was bourgeois, and hating them is the beginning of wisdom. The train of thought would be carefully written (and invented), with each noun or verb attached by connotation and memory, and the taxonomies of true and false would be replaced with what is big and little.

The stream of consciousness and the train of thought are both utterly worthless.

They're not worthless literature, mind you, but they silently agree to time. They are not merely linear but sequential. Of course there is no way to avoid such. For myself, I have no train of thought. I have a dune buggy of thought. I also have no stream of consciousness. I have an ocean of time, where each bit of water is like the others, where the hierarchy is squished beneath immediate needs and revulsions. Desire, aversion, memory, consequence, and all of the rest bubbles, and each does, indeed, rest in a drawer of index cards with call numbers, but each also infects neighbors in irrational, sometimes madcap ways.

Before your fingers right now, reader, is the most significant alteration of the perception of consciousness in many years. You have before you the capability to move not only in lines and segments of lines of your own devising, but to do so incompletely.

Let me demonstrate. You can read any bit you like of this, or stop, or go ahead, or wander off to return later, but the sneaky truth is that you always could, you always have.

The reading experience is a replication of experience itself, but with senses suppressed. There is no reason for you to value the sequence above the jag, the movement over the jerk, except that you choose to. Knowing this, knowing that you have always chosen full sentences over fragments, lessons over experiences, meanings over data, I hope that you realize that, like me, you have every reason to believe that your time is your own, that sense making is more than random. You don't have to, of course.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Choice and Chosen

One person famously said that, if you want a happy and successful life, you should choose your parents carefully. There is great iron in that irony. I respect my reader too much to explain the statement, and I respect myself too little to believe that there is anything I have seen in it that is obscure.

As my life has continued to play, I have come to a conclusion that is, I hope, far in advance of its conclusion, and that is that, if one wishes to be happy, one needs to choose one's memories very carefully as well. I may write as if I were in my eighties, look as if I were in my twenties, and act as if I were an arthritic teen, but I am in between those decades, in physical age. I write these essays, usually, with the benefit of a weekend morning, unusually with the benefit of a stiffer of B&B, and nearly never with anything more to my tally than unaccustomed sleep. This afternoon, it's Grand Marnier. In my previous, I suggested that the self that must be sought in the haze of drink and drug must be a very slippery fellow indeed, if one can only apprehend him when he's too drunk to move. My analogy, perhaps, was not so ill chosen, for that, I believe, is the purpose of those self-discovery benders that people occasionally ride when they are miserable or confused. They're not trying to forget. They're trying to stultify the man or woman within so that her or his lapels can be seized and the lights may be shone.

My mother and father have both just passed the three score and ten years that we are allotted in the flesh, and they are both beginning to show signs of what doctors and other observers promise us all. Their strength is not labor and sorry, but their memories are tumbling. There is a somersault of the past that all who live to age discover.
"For honest merit to succeed amid the tricks and intrigues which are now so lamentably common, I know is difficult; but the honor of success is increased by the obstacles which are to be surmounted." -- Rutherford B. Hayes

The truth is that when we are young, the sensations which sink most deeply in our minds are those which are most recent. Each item that occurs creates an impression equal to each other, and therefore memory and recall are alike dominated by the history of the moment and the momentousness of the present. There is little hierarchy, for there is no meaning yet to subordinate any memory. As we get into mid-stride, we develop two tracks of memory. There is the memory, which is a narrative of a life and a treasure house of pleasures and a counting house of afflictions, and a present. This "present" is nothing like the moment of existence. Instead, it is the surroundings of the existential moment, the "action," and it contains within its bounds "reasons" and "what's next" and "expectations" and "objectives" and "guilt" and all of the other things that can be summoned instantly to guide the ongoing agon of the endeavor of living.

At a certain point, though, the memory grabs the ego and begins to throttle it. At a certain point again, memory steps forward according to rhymes of action, indexes of words, and the like. Therefore, you hear of a poorly aimed telephone call, and a memory, some monster of youth or delight of teen years, rushes to your lips, and you feel again those sensations that gave this experience of yours such power.
I have seen my parents, and before them I had seen my grandparents, remember scenes and incidents from their childhoods with the power of a lucid dream and the vividness of a storm colored sunset. I have witnessed friends with horrors of childish embarrassment or shame washing over their adult bodies, and they were wracked by things that did not matter at the time and cannot heal or harm now, but which created a hollow pocket in their minds, a pocket that was now seeking expiation.

What is it that has made the past such a wilderness? What is it that makes it come to our present lives, its empty cup thrust forward, demanding alms? Traumas? I know few bruises that reappear so long after the event. The critical moments that make us selves? I doubt that, as well. Two nights ago, my mother relived her only occasion of being in trouble with a teacher in elementary school, where she was treated unfairly by a petty tyrant. Another student by her would likely have thought it nothing, and yet, at age seventy, she was put upon the rack of that moment again, and she could not choose to forget it or explain away its power.

What memories will leap frog over your taxonomies? Which ones will arrest you and hold you hostage until you pay them their two pennies? The moments of joy come to pay their respects as well as the humid, intemperate, shameful episodes of spiritual death.

I had a "bad patch" in the middle of the 1980's. It seemed like I might have pulmonary hypertension. That would have meant a heart transplant. I began to read books on death. That's when I read strange items like The Egyptian Book of the Dead (apparently, I was in a hurry) as well as more sensibly depressing things as The Sickness Unto Death. I also read Leo Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilych. It's a mere 50 pages.

It turned out that I didn't have pulmonary hypertension. Oh, I had stuff going on, but not that. I learned some things from my run through the rapids of death literature, as well. Tolstoy's work was interestingly admonitory. It was clearly not designed for people who were aware of how soon they would be still and dance no more, and so it pointed out clearly that, if you wish to live and have a meaningful life, you must live and live meaningfully. Ilych's only consolation at death is memories of snowball fights as a child. All of his accomplishments meant nothing.

I decided then to go to graduate school. I was going to be happy and live as I wished to live and never defer my happiness until certain conditions were met. I vowed to not hedonism, but existentialism of a epicurean sort. I cannot tell if it has made any difference.
All that I know is that I have made a darned poor job of having chosen. What will meet me, interrupting the ice tea and biscuit on my plate, overrunning my conversation to a care giver or electronic ramble, is most assuredly not going to be a major event like September 11, 2001, but some mordant glance in a school cafeteria, some inappropriate stride in a bad place, a mugging at age fifteen behind the Omni, in Atlanta, or, of course, being the spider's abdomen in a hospital bed. At seven, I had some surgery beyond the customary. My friends in the hospital ward with me died. I had a three week coma. Veins began to slide and slip beneath the phlebotomist's needle, my elbows taped to planks of wood, drains in my sub femoral vein, and many doses of liquids into those sites. I was cheerful enough through it, having been brought up on tales of "men." Men were not merely possessors of Y-chromosomes. They were without remorse, and when they had "nerves," it meant that they were even more remorseless, and not that they were capable of suffering any physical pain -- for they were completely lacking, there. However, I had an irrational reaction to the situation that may, indeed, have been as rational as anything else. I saw myself as the center of a spider. Tubes going out and coming in, draining pus and transporting in antibiotics, saline, and glucose made me an immobilized tick's body, the arachnid whose web was not her own -- which is to say the fly in the web.

I have little doubt that that, which I have placed in a box stored beneath the shelf of conversation, will rattle and throw off its lid, shatter its chains, and clamber on top of me at some point in a decade or two. I can only hope that others, the conscious others, the ones fashioned as good times, will compete successfully. Perhaps pillow talk with a lover, the scent of a room, or even a horrible fight with a lover will manage to vault my consciousness as well as such horrid powerlessness, for they are preferable, each.

Know, then, your past. Perhaps telling the stories of our worst moments before our memories flip on their heads can make them so boring as to take away the only thing they all seem to have in common: the fact that we don't want to share them with anyone.

Saturday, October 13, 2007


"I am grown peaceful as old age tonight.
I regret little, I would change still less." -- Robert Browning, ''Andrea del Sarto''
It's important to know where you are. I have often remarked upon this fact, and many sage philosophers before me -- minor footnotes to my genius -- have done the same. Now, Socrates thought that the trippy shrike at Delphi was onto something when she said (remember: no Greek characters at Blogger), "gnothi seauton." Well, she probably didn't say it. Socrates probably didn't say it, either. They say that Socrates said it, and it was carved above her cave, They say. Despite all that, I maintain that "know yourself, man" is only one of the problems to be solved. The other is, "Where you at?"

Now, it's tempting to see the Delphic oracle's slogan as perhaps not an admonition or exhortation, but rather as an explanation. After all, here was some nice girl who went into a cave and breathed magic healing vapors that almost certainly made her hallucinate like a hippie, and I never have figured out how some shopkeeper's daughter would go from shy virgin to voice of Apollo. Did she elect herself? Was she elected by others? Was she unmarried by a certain age and therefore set aside in a face-saving move? Was she just the daughter of someone without sufficient dowry? I think it's at least plausible that she picked herself by being a first class cryptic goth girl. What do you do with your Plath-loving sad chicks? Well, the very best of the best, the one with the most uncanny insight and poetic expression might well go off to a cave to get to, like, really know herself. She would therefore have merely been the mother of unnumbered generations of sensitive souls taking drugs to get to know themselves. (One supposes that the self to be known is very hard to know indeed, if it takes becoming blotto to get near it.)

However, I will resist that temptation and instead hold forth on the philosophico-spiritual and temporal need of cartography. Have you not noticed that you are here? In fact, you are always here. Even when you're there, you're here.

No, I haven't been breathing magic Vap-o-Rub. I mean that all maps are constructed around you. They all have, in the center, "You Are Here." This is both an orientation marker and an assurance. Yes, you are here. Relax, man, because you're still here. No matter where you go, you can open any map and find that you are still here. The map inevitably offers a profound reassessment. So long as the map is in your hands, the world is known, the surroundings are known, and, most importantly, you are outside of the world. You are the eye in the sky. You are the stationary object in a world that flops about in eighteen impossible trifolds. You're ok. You're still here. All of that space is out there, down there, around there, but you're here, and you're safe.

There is a bit of a kerfuffle about whether or not the earth is the center of the universe. To me, that's a non-starter, and the problem with the church that hollered at Galileo is not that it was wrong, but that it was dogmatic about it. Had they been flexible in their thinking at all, they'd have known that the earth most assuredly is the center of the universe, because it's where the map makers are. If you go to London and you watch the TV news, you may well see a globe or a distorted Mercator's projection behind the readers. What you'll notice is that England is centered. Why wouldn't it be? The Southern Hemisphere is below chair level. Why not? If you watch a film and see the "Universal Pictures" (warning... stupid flash there) globe spin round, you'll notice that it stops with the sun shining on Hollywood. Of course. That's because You Are Here is the center of the map. Wouldn't be much of a map if "you are down there, below the edge of the paper" were displayed. So, if the universe is infinite and all, then it keeps going from its center in all directions, and therefore there really is no center. You'd have to know where the edges are to measure back to find the center, and if it's limitless (or a torus or a Taurus (and a paper on how the universe is a Ford motorcar is easier for me to understand than the one on polydimensional space)), or if it reflects, or if it hooks back on itself like a Klein bottle (my whiskey always comes in a Klein bottle), then any single place could be the "center" as easily as another, and, since we're the jerks making maps, why not here? In fact, why not right over my computer? It's as good a place as any other for center of the universe.

I didn't want to write about the universe, though. I wanted to write about directions. Above and left, I have a picture of The Big Chicken. The Big Chicken is far outside of Atlanta, GA in the independent freehold of Marietta, Georgia. (Dadgummed scarred me so much I was nearly Not Here when I saw that site.) Anyway, Mariettians and Atlantans having to pass the border into the Republic of Newt would need directions, and for decades such directions were given in terms not of where a person was, but in terms of the Big Chicken. Turn right at the Big Chicken to go to a particular car dealership (where the manager always needs his "crying towel" because of the deals the ignorant children give customers). It was an effective object d'art for that reason. In fact, the place was to be torn down every few years (and it didn't even start out as a chicken restaurant), but it got preserved due to its utility and tackiness.

Where I live now, there are some thousands of persons living in the city limits and some thousands more who travel in to shop. However, there are few landmarks to guide them.
"Practice your beauty, blue girls, before it fail;
And I will cry with my loud lips and publish
Beauty which all our power shall never establish,
It is so frail." -- John Crowe Ransom, Blue Girls.

Instead, the people of the town have this eye-catching billboard.
It has been the subject of many glares and many more averted eyes. It remains there, warning us all that our colons are filled with polyps and that there are some gunslingers in town with the Old West mentality necessary for removing these villainous growths. We've been invaded by the Cavendish Gang, and they're out to kill our men folks. Fortunately, the folks at Mid-Atlantic Biopsy and Cow Punching are ready to go in there and clean it out for us.

You are HERE, the sign tells us. Fortunately, so are they.

Quick on the draw, the posse of gastroenterologists will gather in the saloon and chase down those varmints.

Me? I have no problem with the sign. I think it's important to know where you are. It's probably just as important to know where those guys are. Anyone creeps up behind me should have good intentions, and I know that they do: they have the best of intentions. My problem is only the sign's location. It's between a Wal*Mart and a Lowe's on a road with no nearby intersection. Therefore, it can't really be useful for telling travellers where they should turn. You can't say, "Well, go to the Big Chitlin and hang a left." I think they should move the sign in toward town some, or at least at the site of the local eternal road construction, because then we can use the sign as an object. We can make it a feature.

We can use it for directions and forget for a moment that it's a map.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

In Praise of the Pause

Security is an insipid thing, and the overtaking and possessing of a wish discovers the folly of the chase. -- William Congreve, Love for Love

Let us take a moment to celebrate the vitality of nothing. The future perfect particle is one of the most life-sustaining and indispensable components of language. It is the catch that occurs in the mouth rather than the throat, and it signals the world that what comes soon is not currently not available. Give me, uh, a second, because, um, the thing I want to explain is, uh, not really, sort of, fitting right now in the words that, um, are at my, my, fingertips.

The particle testifies both to hope, faith, and regard. It says that I want to, um, improve, or at least polish what is about to rush out, and that I think I can, well, do it. You are important to me, or, uh, I want you to think so. You probably are important to me, but, um, what I'm trying to do here is important, and I have the, uh, well, utmost regard for my task and my listener. You need to believe me, or, at least, um, believe in me.

Speaking of which, there are times when the future perfect particle is used in a different syntactic position. If you see a woman breast feeding at church, you may be overwhelmed. Why, you may wonder, is she breast feeding? Are her breasts hungry? They appear well fed as it is. What is the expression on that baby's face? Is it different from the expression you wear with a hot fudge sundae? You may think that it's natural and begin revising your impressions and holding back the flood of quips with your mental thumb in the mental dike. It is, um, natural, and, uh, there are many natural bits of the biological nature that we prohibit in public, so should you pull the thumb out or go get the mortar? Is church, like, a better or, uh, you know, much, much, much worse place for this bit of nature? Is this so she can attend the sermon more closely? The baby isn't really, uh, listening, and, uh, you know, none of the others on the pew are, either. Is she trying to avoid distracting people by going outside with the baby? Really? Because, you know, it kind of seems that the distraction is, uh, really, kind of happening anyway.

So, you go through the future perfect particle, but it isn't being used that way at all. Instead, the same particle has an entirely different function. Here, it is the orientation interjection. It is the, uh, anchor morpheme.

Speaking of morphine, sleep, which is Morpheus's domain, has always kept the human mind awake. As Roethke points out,
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go. -- "The Waking," by Theodore Roethke
If we do not sleep, we doze. If we do not dream, we hallucinate or die in life, for "Youth dreams a bliss on this side death," as Matthew Arnold wrote (a neglected poem). Go without sleep for seventy-two hours in a row, the way I did when studying for the final exam in "The Rise of Rome," and all sorts of things will happen to you, although only a few of them will be real. (They're still offering the class, and I made a C.) If you want to be alive, invested, present, and pregnant with or nursing your emerging ego, you had better sleep. In sleep, we clear cut the forest of free standing, new growth facts and sensations. We take the vet visit, the veterans on TV, and the fete we attended and clear them out, ejecting the noisy hangers-on of our memories. We expel all of those trivial sensations, the superfetation of tis en (sorry, but I can't figure out how to get Greek characters...that was supposed to be witty reference to T.S. Eliot), trailing clouds of fooling from our ears and napes, thereby evacuating the floor for new dancers in the daily dance of stuffing out brains. Morphemes have their own shapes and cast their own extraneous little shadows.

The pause that flees, the hidey hole of meaning, enables our verbal acts and our exclamations, so let us now praise the most meaningless of particles, the most useful of noises, the mantra of the extemporaneous speaker, the mane padme hum of "Um."