Four Years and Twenty-Three Days Ago

Four years and twenty-three days ago I made an extremely common mistake: I agreed to a friend’s request. He recommended that a couple we both knew, two of his friends and I visit a picturesque, elaborate, and once widely-celebrated establishment known for its hookah and cocktails. He and I went together while the three would attempt to come later. The weather was wintery, and cold and rainy. In effect we went during the sliver of offseason afforded by nature but, in any event, the place had already begun its descent to shabbiness and demolition.

The business was on the third floor. We walked up a groaning stair case. The grass needed cutting. The roof was a patchwork dating back to the 60s. The surface had been mauled by salt’s erosion. The businesses had two large doors, but the wood paneling was either peeling away or a patchwork of stain from ersatz replacements.

I agreed to this because my friend was an agreeable alcoholic. “I do not have a problem, I have a preoccupying hobby.” One day he drank a bottle of champagne, what was left of a bottle of red wine and started on a glass flask of Jack Daniels—while eating his way through gingersnaps and cheddar cheese. This began at eleven in the morning. At eight he fell asleep. At ten he woke up around the time we were heading out, and he followed. He drank three Old Fashioneds, four plain shots of bourbon, skipped dinner, and puked the next day until five. At five thirty he resumed his normal course. He admitted, “In the long run, gets rather unhealthy.”

He was agreeable in all ways but one. He smoked, which is no vice, but when he smoked he would put out his butts and place them in his pockets. We could smell him long before we could see him and while tobacco leaves may have an enticing aroma, there was nothing enticing about the lingering smell of burnt filter.

On entering we made the acquaintance of the proprietor, or some agent thereof, who was ugly, lazy and, really, quite accommodating. He monitored and curated a collection of faded couches, fraying armchairs, and coffee tables with new, plastic tops. In the corner was a shabby bar where the threadbare carpets had entirely given way. Bemusingly, not to be confused with amusingly, the lighting in each area is either too dim or too bright. The bar’s was too bright.

Since we did not see the others, we headed for the bar. The bartender was a small, middle aged man, smartly dressed, with an exceptionally lively, intelligent face – and a perceptible air of sadness. He was, like the rest of us, alone but also, I must say, deeply and truly lonely. My friend ordered a half dozen martinis to be prepared not sequentially but simultaneously—six shining glasses in a bright row, down which he would work, all the while talking at a rapid pace.

As he waited and drank the sun sank until it smiled crookedly like a fingernail. The declining light softened the sharp contrast of the establishment’s lighting and for the first time I was able to make a full inspection of the other patrons. There were a few Iranian businessmen, a few Pakistanis and a group of schoolteachers whose loud, crying laughter echoed horrifyingly among the quiet leather. Taken collectively I can say several things. First, at no time did any of the groups acquaint each other with another. Second, no social interaction proceeded beyond polite nods. Third, we made no indication except with the barest of turns that we noticed the passing of each other.

When I turned my attention back to the steadily thinning stems I noticed a new presence in our company. She immediately engaged me in her own conversation. Why she did this I cannot say for certain, but I believe that people perceive my mind as at rest. My face, which enjoys a default position studiously devoid of emotion, may imply that I am an endless supply of life without stress and obstacles, that I dream up what I want to do. Then I do what I dream or sometimes I do not but it is all baloo in the end. For this reason they tell me about themselves even though it is a fact that I do not know how to react to stories. My face brings characters and events to me and as long as I maintain my ability to look and listen people seek me out.

In literature and movies, sexual revelation is a matter of tact and occasion. Whether or not such candor is appreciated depends on the revealer’s attitude more than, even, the listener’s. But tact, mercifully, usually forbids us to tell other what one feels or, especially, Feels. Today I am never quite certain why memoirists are so eager to tell us what they do in bed. Unless the autobiographer has a case to be argued, I suspect that future readers will skip those sexual details that our writers have so generously shared with us in order to get to the gossip and the jokes. For this reason I am, these years later, equally mystified about her.

I have no recollection of all what was said, though much of involved hiking with her college roommates, but I remember her concluding with a small grin that “Come is a horrible word to apply to something ecstatic.”

Toni Morrison

Don’t write about Woman, write about a woman. This is a simple statement but controversial.

Toni Morrison was recently appointed at Columbia University, a nice gesture. Morrison would not be teaching. She would not be publishing in any academic publications. She likely will not publish much more fiction because she is rapidly approaching her mid-eighties. “Her papers” will never be released in any form to the public and will not be viewed by any biographers. Her public refusals of Henry Louis Gates Jr. to catalog her life and African American heritage needs no additional commentary. The same is true for her repeated refusals to find a memoirist (for those dear readers who do not know—nearly all ‘memoirs’ are in fact written and compiled by other people and the ostensible subject combs through a finished project).

If Columbia does not expect a sudden start to Morrison’s academic career, has doubts about her continued career as a writer and does not, or should not, expect to be the recipient of Morrison’s generosity then there is no soft answer for why she was offered this position. But the answer is not difficult. Columbia University has joined an ever greater number of the public who read Morrison to make themselves feel better about themselves.

Few judge her on whether the prose is good or what she has to say because she’s long past being an author who is understood. Or an author at all. She is an empty memorial to everything and, so, nothing at all. She’s taught, at best, and at worst she’s just another author passing the public like two dark ships at night. And we’ll probably have nice little articles, perhaps a few honors, about a Morrison completely unrelated to anything other than the article-author’s own peccadillos and loves for quite some time.

Few people appear to be reading her books. One can pick up a glut of once read, perhaps, copies of Beloved for less than a dollar: the foisted remains of each successive high school class that struggles through a book presented by aging diversity ‘trail blazers.’ Unsurprisingly, her latest novel, God Help this Child, is currently ranked in the mid 1400s on Amazon, which in fact represents something of a crest in terms of sales potential as Amazon has recently begun combining all mediums—Audio CD, Kindle, Audible Audio. Never before has it been easier to buy a book no one else does.

That Morrison is not read because Morrison—as a person—no longer matters is a neat, linear progression I think more would make if they considered it. It also explains why Morrison, as a New York Magazine piece summarized, “decades after she won her Nobel, [her] place in the pantheon is hardly assured.”

For example, elsewhere in the article, in a burst of unintentional self-parody, the same writer fired off a slew of meaningless pretensions that explain more about the article’s author than Morrison. She writes, Morrison is successful even when she isn’t successful or, in the article writer’s words, writers with “smaller ambitions” would “live on contentedly in this plush purgatory.”

But what I found especially telling in this piece was a final, parting paragraph. Tacked on, perhaps, but truncated just as the article becomes interesting. The author writes: Morrison will escape the “plush purgatory,” and “pass the test” when  “Chloe Wofford is gone, and Toni Morrison is all that’s left.”

Chloe Ardelia Wofford is Toni Morrison’s real name and, curiously enough, her preferred name—as she has stated almost incessantly since the end of her first marriage and, likely, stated long before its end. “Oh God! It sounds like some teenager—what is that?” She laughed through one interview with the Times.  “But Chloe,” she explains “That’s a Greek name. People who call me Chloe are the people who know me best. Chloe writes the books.” Toni Morrison, Ms. Wofford clarifies, does the tours, the interviews, the “legacy and all of that.”

Her legacy, so far, is bracketed by discussions of her Nobel Prize. Note well how the international community has approached Morrison, memorializing and promptly forgetting about her. Like ‘yeah, yeah, yeah—African American literature, great stuff, see you later.’ They made a nice gesture, handed out a few medals and became (I’m reminded of Tony Judt’s comment) another gnome in the land of forgetting.

And note well how the Times, serenely unaware of its own complicity, writes in the same article that Wofford does not even have control of her own name—as if that was an accusation directed against anyone but the people who appreciate her body of work. Gawker famously remarked, on the announcement that there would be a Morrison book this year, declared that there was already a ‘Best Book of 2015.’ Enter Columbia University to finally prove, channeling Dr. Johnson’s Gospel of Matthew, that pride must have a fall to prove that it is the true thing and not merely the mock.

Or, perhaps even better, a tendentious article with the word ‘vision’ in its title. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/12/magazine/the-radical-vision-of-toni-morrison.html?_r=0 As the author explains, but doesn’t get at the heart of, “The Bluest Eye,” “Sula” and “Song of Solomon” are a bold holy trinity of “classics.” How do we know this? They were the jumpstart to a “literary culture that had to either diversify or die.” And if we ignore the uncomfortable fact that literary culture died anyhow along with most of the reading public, then we get at the heart of what Morrison was to the author from virtually the very beginning. Not so much a writer, or even an artist, but a thing that everyone just wished would hurry up and die so that she could be memorialized and symbolized. And since she has (unfortunately) lingered on, we will just go ahead and memorialize all her work as “classics” before she dies.

She is often discussed in terms of her audience, the older black women who fan themselves with her book covers at her readings, the teenage girls who sigh on buses and trains while reading “Sula” for class, the young male rappers who have interpolated lines from “The Bluest Eye” into their songs.

Here the author comes so, so close to making that point. I take for granted that the “older black women” who fan themselves with Morrison’s book covers, apparently just the book covers, are just as real to the author as the “young male rappers” who have “interpolated” lines from “The Bluest Eye” into their song. By that I mean not real at all. Instead, they are reduced from an actual group of people to symbols whose actual existence is irrelevant. Morrison herself flatly reflected across other people, other times, because Morrison doesn’t exist as a person to the author either. Morrison is the ultimate mirror, and like all mirrors merely reflects back at the author the author’s own opinions.

This sort of empty memorializing, Morrison “on her own terms,” is both flatly untrue if the author is writing from the Old Gray Lady and is also a choice to evaluate Morrison on no terms at all. If I evaluated you on your own terms that would only be evaluating you on whatever items I thought were neat. Cool. Exciting. Not ‘terms’ in the classical, objective sense of the word but random notes that I bang on about. The author almost admits it, “Morrison serves as a totem for so much of this energy.” Totems don’t write, they just accumulate whatever superstitions the devoted attribute to the object. Phrased a little differently, Morrison is in fact a totem.

This sort of thinking isn’t limited to popular venues. Even odd academic pursuits, such as the recent Toni Morrison: Memory and Meaning, is ready for those heady times when we are completely free from living with Wofford. As the introduction explains one essay, “For Stave, Sweet Home is a riff on the Garden of Eden with its ‘lush pastoral setting’ that is far from innocent. She then engages both Jazz and Paradise as a ‘startling critique of the Judeo-Christian God,’ positing salvation not as religious reward but as the ‘result of human forgiveness and connectedness.’” This essay must assume that Ms. Wofford is dead—most of these essays have to as a preliminary matter. Because if they don’t their ‘research’ is useless. On one hand they can write and write and analyze. On the other they can call her up and ask.

Less interesting, but also relevant, is the creation of Morrison as a weapon. She explains herself well: her vision of God, Judeo-Christian and all, is one of forgiveness. This anthropomorphic being creates bridges and, as the cliché goes, he does not destroy them. But here, as is elsewhere, Morrison is ‘actually’ criticizing the author’s own peccadillos. Perhaps it’s an elaborate coincidence, and that it so happens that Morrison was actually thinking that when she wrote of her conception of Judeo-Christian God she was also criticizing Judeo-Christian God—or, at least, a form. But when a whole book, a whole industry, springs up where author’s appropriate Morrison for their own views coincidence begins to look like deliberateness.

I am not saying that they must pick one side or the other. I’m merely commentating on the choice they have created for themselves. One or the other: whatever Ms. Wofford happens to say is beside the point. Her ‘true’ meaning is irrelevant and the meaning that they pull from her works, which inevitably has a meaning near and dear to their own lives, is of primary importance. Literary hashish for the 21st Century.

Part of this is inevitable. Books are never written for most Americans. They simply are not. How many comments begin “I’ve never read (m)any of Ms. Morrison’s books but…?” And when you reduce book-reading even further to all dozen African-American study programs that require their students to read novels, the pool only gets smaller. The calculus, then, is that more people will care about Morrison if she is divested of her thorny, real-person edges and transformed into being a feel good story about black experience.

Young, male rappers and old, porch-bound spinsters coming together with NYT article writers to sit in a circle around the figure of Morrison–the NYT’s writer leading the discussion, of course. It doesn’t have any meaning, but in the garden of forgetting not having a point is rarely fatal. In fact the opposite is true, so Morrison herself can be left at the door (and must be). Such that someone can be quoted, criticizing the establishment, “black literature, black art, has always been put in a separate category” almost simultaneously as Morrison herself is saying ‘I write on my own terms, African-American literature first and distinct from literature over all.’ Oh well.

I had spent hours with Morrison, accosting her with questions, thinking about her, observing her, and yet for the first time I understood Morrison was a person with real human concerns.

And for the last time.

A Recommendation

I was hanging out with the wrong people. The bad people. An unusual crowd. A maddening friend. So went the parade of horribles as I nodded uncomfortably in my pew. Asleep? Such is life in the court.

I work for the ‘juvenile’ division of a public defender office, I work mainly for kids and those considered ‘adults’ in relation to the heinousness of their crime. On one occasion I was asked, by a client who is going to be incarcerated for a violation of parole, if I had any recommendations. A curious if pleasant question. He wanted to make something out of his time. He wanted to take steps toward self-improvement. He wanted a book to read.

Some decide that their incarceration will be the start for going to the gym, or finally kicking caffeine. Others have promised to watch less television, or have fiendishly reasoned that self-improvement relies on watching more television: they still don’t know what happened at the Red Wedding or who Walter White is, and this is making connecting with their fellow human beings difficult.

But what if you’re interested in connecting with your fellow human beings in a way that doesn’t require access to premium cable? At the time there was anything to say. What could I say? I could recommend some books, but uselessly. I can never forget when Starbuck tells Ahab that the hunt for Moby-Dick is against God’s purposes, and Ahab looks at him blankly. Just who is Melville’s God, or the God of those who came after him? Who is Ahab’s God? Like Prometheus, in ancient and in Romantic literature–or Gore Vidal against the New York Times–Ahab opposes himself to the sky god, even if you want to call that God Yahweh or Jehovah. He does not expect to win but he fights anyhow, perhaps like Milton’s Satan merely for the excitement of courage in the face of defeat.

I can never forget the client’s face for the same reason. He is fighting a battle he will not win and so what could I say? And yet saying nothing seemed a crime. Seems a crime. Is a crime. If not against him then against a far-off world where people know what to say.

Fortunately Penguin Books aims to help thousands of the soon-to-be-incarcerated (who else reads?) by engineering a fantastical little effort. For 80 pence, or about a 1.30 dollars, readers can purchase a lovely (“slender”) black book by Penguin. They take a bite from multiple pies—Roman history, poetry, essays from Montesquieu, a few shorts from Chekhov, a novella from Dostoevsky. No context, of course. Just snippets and little tidbits for men and women that are endlessly trying to improve themselves.

Like most marketing these days what is being sold is not product, but an image of you. For some the image is being sold as an ancillary to the product. But only some. I make no judgment, dear reader, only commentary. Note well: there is no pattern to the selection. A quote is plucked out, perhaps perfect for the creation of a Buzzfeed list, and potential customers are seduced with a future image of themselves navigating a literary iPod of little black books. Russians fill the gaps between Romans. Sappho makes an appearance. Nietzsche pops up, but since he—like myself—was never pithy he comes in an edited book of aphorisms.

What is a book without context? Not much, I am afraid, which is why recommendations are so crucial. It is why I failed. How can I capture in a few words, even a thousand, a whole book—a whole novel? There is a short story in here, I am sure, of a man who tries to recommend a book but ends up recommending it so well, so on point, that he ends up writing the book himself.

If I could have that moment back I would recommend the short stories of Anton Chekhov. There are few things about his writing that are not loved. According to a study published in October, 2013 in the journal Science, reading literary fiction — including the works of Anton Chekhov — increases scores on tests of empathy and emotional intelligence. Who wouldn’t want to be more empathetic in 2015? Much better than kicking a nascent addiction to Keurig cups.

I wonder what I should have told him about Chekhov. About Penguin Books. So it goes, in Vonnegut’s laconic phrase, and so I will tell you. Before embarking on a self-help tour of late-Czarist Russia, dear reader, be advised that Chekhov doesn’t provide easy answers to becoming a kinder, more caring person. There’s no five-step solution, no short prayer that will increase your fortunes and lay waste to the fields of your enemies. Instead he brings us into a world where bad things often happen, especially to good people. That is why he can be so difficult. He does not afford many happy endings, or endings of any sort. Yet I firmly believe that if you read his short stories, maybe even twice, then you will become a better human being than when you first went in. Here is one short story that you may like.

Chekhov will always represent the impressionistic pole of the short story, and the novel for that matter. For better or worse is it impossible to escape his shadow. He is simply a door we must pass through, having exhausted all infamy, gratefully.

But that is not what Penguin is offering, even when it offers us a few Chekhov’s shorts. They are offering a fragment, a shadow of a shadow. Instead of Chekhov, and understanding him, they are offering the appearance of improvement. Improvement without purpose. Click the Penguin, select a random book and press purchase. “Where to start? In the end I just tipped them out and stuck out my hand at random.” Don’t think about it—buy it. Improve yourself. To what end? That is the question that is better left unanswered. That is the question that makes me think about my client.

The trouble with the presumption is not that it addresses trivial or unreal issues but that it provides self-defeating solutions. Arising out a legitimate need to sell itself to an increasingly ignorant public the idea is to, well, accept that the public isn’t going to read books. They are going to buy an article that is marketed as a sleek, little, black book. But such a solution is self-defeating. Without foundation these little black books are symbols crashing. If a book falls on deaf ears does it make a sound?

Those who believe in critical thought as an indispensable precondition of social or political progress might well renounce the very possibility of progress and side with the conservatives, who at least recognize intellectual deterioration when they see it and do not attempt to disguise it as liberation. But the conservative interpretation of the collapse of standards is much too simple.

There is no wrong crowd or maddening friend. There is no group of bad influences, mistook for good. The trouble is with him. No single book, or collection of books, is going to do him much good. We failed him a long time ago. It is too late to spin the dial and hope for the best. But I guess I will.

Notes

Dear Reader, let me apologize for my prolonged absence. I cannot explain the implosion. I have never been terribly productive. I have always felt a little out of place in the cult of the economy. I find myself, as if I was lost, in graduate school. The dual threats of work, fulfilling, and study, less so, strains my soul. I have also found a Dear Other who I love.

As my last post hinted this Dear Other is quite Dear. Like all people, unfortunately, they will always be an Other—no matter how Dear. My energy is sent to cheery exploits of exploring and mapping and existing with Dear Other. I have no other words to describe it, and since I cannot I will not. These energies are gratefully expended but writing becomes difficult. My world has collapsed and have my usual subjects.

In equal parts fortunate and unfortunate I have received a steady supply of comments and views—more than I ever imagined. Fortunate because each encourages me to do something I enjoy like a wink or a nudge. Unfortunate because I feel unable to meet even these humble expectations.

But perhaps I put too much pride in my work. Too much ego. Is writing that difficult? I can hear the silent head shaking from here, ‘producing my drivel, surely, can’t be hard’—is it a question or a statement of fact? I cannot tell. Or perhaps it is precisely because I can’t escape my love of needless literary blandishments that makes writing so hard.

What I do know, and now accept, is that I celebrate novels when they defy those dominations and powers that enslave us. This is my house of worship, and if you would like to take an occasional peek—dear reader—then all the better. If there is pride then I cannot escape it. Prometheus somewhat cryptically observes, “Time, growing ever older, teaches all things.” Or, as Dr Johnson notes, reflecting Matthew’s Gospel, “Pride must have a fall;” thus proving I have the real thing and not merely the mock.

In my spare time, for I have many hours that I fill with trivial pursuits, I write myself notes. I write myself notes about odd things. Recently I wrote some notes while I watched, equal parts amused and bemused, an American-Japanese animated serial called Cowboy Bebop.

I do not think the show needs much introduction, mainly because the exact content I relate well as this note goes along, enough and the actual content you either know, dear reader, or do not. Without firsthand knowledge you are not missing much, and with firsthand knowledge you are not missing much. Suffice to say the series details the exploits of two guys in the far future. Their job, or at least what they occasionally do to acquire money, is odd jobs. Usually capturing or killing people—think of a Western but in space. Needless to say the lessons I drew from my viewing did not relate to the plot.

One thing I’ve noticed from the two or three episodes of Cowboy Bebop that I saw, I’m afraid it never quite caught on with me, is how it paired itself down to two general themes. The first being ‘American Western’ to the point of being a farce or satire, campy, perhaps in the same mold as the Italian spaghetti westerns like the Dollars trilogy (e.g. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly). The second being the Japanese penchant for pinpoint expression bridging a vast emptiness of unspoken (here, unwritten) details. Described, once, as “the emptiness, the nothingness, of the Orient… not to be taken for the nihilism of the West.”

I’m reminded of this passage from Italo Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night a Traveler, which may (or may not) be an excerpt from a fictional Japanese book On the carpet of leaves illuminated by the moon.

the shower of little ginkgo leaves is characterized by the fact that in each moment each leaf that is falling is found at a different altitude from the others, whereby the empty and insensitive space in which the visual sensations are situated can be subdivided into a succession of levels in each of which we find one little leaf twirling and one alone.

Like much of Calvino’s work it is, curiously and truly, unique. Part of that uniqueness in how he grasps something that, seemingly, Cowboy Bebop grasps. A certain zeitgeist paired away of all the other influences radiating outwards from the Home Islands.

In Japanese literature what does not move, and what goes unsaid, is often as important as movement. Absence propels just as rapidly as presence. I find a reflection of this dynamic on the screen in Cowboy Bebop because there is often never more than a single animation overlaid on a static background. It’s interesting to see this habit reflected, to an almost comical degree, in the show because one can count on a single hand any frame where more than one movement is shown. Even the fight scenes are carefully choreographed routines where one arm moves through the air to connect at one point.

Bebop’s arc captures, for me, the zeitgeist of Japanese literature. Perhaps the Bebop series, much less Calvino’s slender chapter, is too campy to fully capture Japanese literature in total. Actually there is no perhaps at all. But they are useful, at least as useful as Sergio Leone when he captured the American zeitgeist in Clint Eastwood. Because Bebop’s use is that it refracts a unique quality of Japanese literature across the screen, sometimes badly but well enough.

Dear reader, a quick note. My definition of unique is, well, unique. Thus departing widely from the practice of Irving Babbitt Professor of Comparative Literature at Harvard, who, if I am to believe the indulgent fourth edition of Webster’s International Dictionary, could bring himself to write at least once of the “less unique” just as the novelist Dorothy Canfield Fisher could write of the “more unique” and the playwright Arthur Miller could cap it all by writing of “the most unique.” We can only look nostalgically toward that once-upon-a-time when “unique” was an exceedingly powerful and precise word. Now we observe the erosion of its meaning. No longer can we indicate the only one of its kind, having no like or equal. Another victim of sloppy semantic change for the word has deteriorated into a rough synonym of unparalleled–but not even quite. Much more closer to odd, curious, unusual or even quaint.

Japanese writers focus a tremendous amount of energy on the experience of alienation. The recent Murakami craze, which is certainly not limited to Japan, highlights the trend: South of the Border, West of the Sun. The book contains some extremely poignant explorations of coming of age, early relationships, etc. But crucially the protagonist never escapes the emotions and memories from that adolescent period in his life, the period that everyone faces as one of extreme alienation hangs over the protagonist for the rest of his life.

I think this is also why some people have such a strong reaction to his work. Even when Murakami is writing about adult protagonists he is describing adolescence’s (and adolescences’) alienation. In The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle the protagonist is faced with unfathomable changes in himself, his relationships with women, and the world around him. These changes bring him into a new, stranger world that he is unequipped to function but must. Everything from the wet dreams to the confusing inexplicable relationship with the girl next door evokes the creamy confusion of adolescence.

 

In Murakami’s works, the narrator is almost always somehow set apart from the world he ostensibly exists in. In the end of the world portions contained within Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World the narrator (apparently) possesses the only ego or mind in Town. This is mirrored in the hard-boiled wonderland portions of the novel, where the narrator is cut off from a portion of his own mind, and apparently unaware of the strangeness around him.

This is something Bebop captures and captures well. Perhaps it is also why the show fares so well with a particular age range and, like skateboarding, if you do not approach it at the right age you feel silly when you try. Ultimately the main protagonist in Cowboy Bebop is an adolescent. The other side-show protagonist plays a fairly conventional father figure. He is needlessly and inexplicably thrown from one situation to another where love, loss and confusion drift interchangeably—and senselessly—in a world where adults’ plans dominate.

As a passing remark, for everyone who enjoys Cowboy Bebop I hope that you would take a look at Phillip K. Dick’s novels, especially Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. I find the emptiness of Japanese literature reflected in Dick’s “California spirituality,” which was at least sincere and arguably superior to Cowboy Bebop’s heavy handed effort to apply a Zen-like emptiness to wild Japanese conceptions of American westerns.

Admittedly, Dick was not intentional in the same way about the sci-fi. In Bebop I found the sci-fi to be, largely, just enough to make it politically digestible. And perhaps most noticeably in Dick’s there are no real starships flying around the galaxy. But on the other hand Bebop always seemed to be in the future just far enough so one would care about whether he is driving a Toyota or Ford, whether his father killed my dad or your’s, ect. The future, in Bebop, functioned as a mechanism to place it beyond today’s political concerns but not so far we would not worry about alienation.

Somewhat amusingly, in Bebop the date was never important beyond the first few seconds for the obligatory ‘star port’ scene. And I always found those portions of the episodes to be stylistically and thematically at odds with the rest of the episode. The scenes were a simple device to provide a fig leaf of progression to the plot for audiences antsy about the post-modernist, inconclusive endings that characterized the show. The practical effect is rather small.

So Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep? has the same setting, generally, and the same Eastern nihilism. ‘Who am I? What am I about?’ The style is generally similar, if we can agree on Bebop’s culture heritage. Finally, it has a great amount of reality-based science that may seem a little old, now, but at the time was quite forward thinking.

Quod scripsi scripsi.

A Wonder of Reading

In Borges illuminating, “premeditated” study of Kafka, we are deposited–in a fashion Borges’ owns–onto the conclusion that we discover Kafka’s qualities but only because he had written and Max had saved. Kafka’s influence on these earlier works “In other words… would not exist” if Max had obeyed the will or Kafka had not obeyed his will.

When Pontius Pilate was asked to take down the sign above Christ’s head—which read ‘King of the Jews’—he replied quod scripsi scripsi.There was no regret or elusion. But earlier Pilate had looked into the crowd and had washed his hands. Christ was neither his problem nor responsibility. It is a study of contrasts, who is the real Pilate? If he did not allow a single addition or elision then he is a man of towering certainty. If he abdicated his responsibility and washed his hands of the crowds’ decision then, dear, reader, come to the opposite conclusion.

Deciding who he is a question without an answer, but he is a door we have to pass through. He is still alive, having exhausted all infamy, and is a gift that we must accept gratefully. Because he is a gift I cannot refuse I am afraid that my suffering and joys and sufferings, not to mention my other sufferings, will be left for other pages. Other nights will carry the burden of my scribbling life. Tonight is Pontius.

It is a needless observation that Pilate should be damned for his actions but because of his actions he, indirectly, saved the world. Are the world’s sins cleansed forever and for all if Jesus is let go in favor of Barabas? I am not a theologian but Jurgen Moltmann would be a radically different thinker. Perhaps that is a modern point—efficiency and end results always provide retroactive forgiveness to inexcusable means. But I would consider it a small irony if Pilate was damned because he allowed the savior to save the world. Given the omniscience of God he is also a moral point and, thus, we are led back to my first paragraph—what moral point?

I refuse to believe that Pilate is unvarnished evil. He is not Milton’s Satan or Shakespeare’s “Cheated of feature by dissembling nature and deformed, unfinished, sent before my time into this breathing world, scarce half made up.”

What Pilate represents to us, today, is not the same moral point he has always represented. Theology always contains an autobiographical element, and an autobiography is always changing. What I see in Pilate is Kafka, but if Kafka had not written then I would have never seen him. What I see in Pilate is also an Eichmann, but if Arendt had not written then I would have never seen him.

For that I thank you, authors, and for you dear reader think of what and how figures change when you look at them through different lenses. For Borges could have, and I am sure he did, gone farther. It is not Kafka that we see in those earlier writers, though he is certainly there. It is ourselves that we see. If Zeno’s paradox against movement is reflected in Kafka’s work and Kafka’s work is reflected in Zeno’s then it is because you choose to insert Kafka’s work into Zeno’s and Zeno’s into Kafka’s. And now, as I write, I am busily inserting Borges and, for that matter, whomever you decided wrote the Gospels.

Functionally, I have become Kafka’s precursor. It is a wonder of reading. In considering Pilate I leave myself behind, for Kafka to pick up after I read him–or perhaps before.

Propusk

My job is not important. But I go into lives. While there I collect snapshots. One life sticks with me. He was older. He would not let me read or hold the file, but sat at the small round table in the prison while I sat opposite. In his 40s, still coughing and husky from a recent cold, he read aloud from the narratives. Some were from the paramedics. One princely story was from an officer. He read, or perhaps recited, into my office’s tape recorder, session after session, skipping gore and anything else he thought too personal, announcing “propusk” (“omission”) at each cut.

The omissions were not for my benefit. They were not for anyone’s benefit but his own. Even here he could not bring himself to bring certain words into the world. As long as he could keep the words trapped on the paper, part of a world he did not think about, then the words and the world they represented could not affect him. Or that is what I hope he thought. There is a calming, reassuring logic to it. Twisted but understandable.

I needed to know whether he was sane. Several other people were similarly interested. Part of the process was noting his reactions and hearing his theories regarding his defense. If he could provide a cogent, coherent narrative of his own to provide to the court then there was a sign of sanity and therefore competence. In a perverse way his ability to help himself was his biggest liability. If he had that ability he would lose his best defense. If he did not have that ability, he had a defense.

He thought his father was part of a large conspiracy. The conspiracy extended, as conspiracies inevitably do, to the police. The walls of his house were also implicated. They hid the enforcers, the whisperers, that flourished in the wall space. In retaliation he would pour and rub lotion along the walls. Bottles on bottles. I saw the photos of empty bottles stacked on top of each other. If only he was richer this would all be considered eccentric, but since he was poor he was crazy. He poured lotion on the walls and was irrationally distrustful of his father. Such is life among the Naciremas. Dove would have sponsored him if only he had more followers on Twitter.

But they did not. He had no followers. He got worse. Perhaps some of it was an accident he had. Perhaps some of the disease was meth speaking. There was no reason for why it could not be both. His eyes did not dart. His fingers did not tremble. There was nothing that indicated sustained usage. His teeth sparkled. The sparkle was muted but by comparison to some of his peers they radiated a reassuring haze of healthy living. He read. I watched. An associate took notes. The recorder lived out its life hearing but never speaking, poor thing.

I was reminded of a homunculus: a being who is soul-less until instructed in certain rites. His expression and affection was blunted. He was accused of stabbing his father in the neck with a small wood knife. But the accusation did not touch him. I asked him if he understood the situation. He replied yes. I explored further. Did you stab your father? Yes. Is it because you suffer from delusions? He seemed to grin. From the side it was a grin. But he was only showing his teeth. Social niceties, in all their oddness, do not leave the insane. That is all the commentary social niceties deserve.

Did you stab your father because he was conspiring against you? He gave the most condescending, dismissive and empathetic chuckle. Empathy was not something I expected. No one expects empathy. He replied you do not believe me. No I don’t. I know. But do you know why I don’t believe you? Doesn’t matter what you believe. I stared at him. He stared back. I want to tell the judge what happened. Tell me what happened. My father was attempting to kill me and off he went. The rendition was not earnest because emotion could not escape the blunted face. Thick fingers held themselves firmly in his lap. But an energy was there. A foot tapped. Perhaps it was his.

Los eruditos a la violeta is a satirical work (1772) by the Spanish poet and essayist José Cadalso y Vázquez. It attacks pseudo-erudition by offering would-be scholars lessons on how to appear to be learned without too much reading. Like all satire it picked a slow, large and undefended target. The cultural aristocracy of the late 18th, especially in Spain, fulfilled those requirements. I have no idea why it came to my mind at that point. There was something about the man’s stance. His slow, elaborate and unnecessarily deliberate explanation could have been the root. Or his stance. He had crossed a leg over his other. No chains because this facility was not constructed on a Hollywood set. Yet striped orange pants and shirt were too absurd looking to be believed.

In short, he looked like a professor or a parody of one. Not an affable parody. Not a Pnin or Charles Kinbote. Our man’s work, dear reader and his life. His drugs, his analysis, his self-pity, his delusions and his moods take on a curiously hermetic quality. He comes to resemble some minor medieval scholastic, desperately scrabbling around in categories of his own imagining. But even the most obscure theological speculation usually had as its goal something of significance. From his musings, however, nothing followed and nothing would ever follow. They were not subject to proof and they had no intelligible wordly application except as abstruse apologetics for this man’s humanity. I sighed. I carefully slide the file back to my side of the table. Thank you for your time.

I think about that day quite a bit. I hope to have more like it.

Unreadable Excursions Into the Higher Drivel

There was a bit of the New Yorker that I read. It, like most outlets, quibbled and fretted over the inclusion of Trigger Warnings.

Many of the op-eds and articles on trigger warnings published this week have argued on behalf of the sanctity of the relationship between the reader and the text. For the most part, I have agreed with them. A trigger warning reduces a work of art down to what amounts to plot points. If a novel like José Saramago’s “Blindness” succeeds because it sews up small yet essential pockets of human normalcy against a horrific backdrop, a preëmptive label like “Trigger Warning: Violence and internment” strips it down to one idea.

I relayed these thoughts to Brodsky, along with the anecdote about my professor and “Lolita.” “What a delight it must be to read a book full of graphic accounts of sexual violence and still have the book not be about sexual violence to you!” she said. “Why is the depersonalized, apolitical reading the one we should fight for?”

For those well-versed in the neo-orthodoxies of the new, illiberal liberalism the next paragraph writes itself. Immediately reference the author’s own non-WASP background. Dodge. Evade.

I admit, this was an angle I had not yet considered, and I recalled the severe annoyance I’d felt in college seminars and coffeehouse conversations whenever a white person would say a bit too ringingly that a book written by a person of color somehow “transcended race,” as if that was the highest compliment that could be paid to a work written by one of us poor, striving minorities.

Let us ignore, for a moment, an Asian-American from California talking with any authority on America’s race questions–because the only fun there is unintentional irony, and not much irony at that. Such a contrived point about the quintessential ‘white person’ making a reckless statement. I wince. Recall Heine’s prophetic observation about Marx and his peers: “These revolutionary doctors and their pitilessly determined disciples are the only men in Germany who have any life; and it is to them, I fear, that the future belongs.” I recall it daily. In name of tolerance we have a man, ostensibly a ‘man of letters,’ immediately contrite. The disciples of political correctness have another victory. He should have doubled-down. Where is Gore Vidal, James Baldwin or Joan Didion when we need them?

There is an excellent rebuttal begging to be made to Brodsky on Lolita. “What a tragedy it must be to read a book full of graphic accounts of sexual violence and have the book be only about sexual violence to you!” Brodsky has the benefit of owning a worldview that allows her to converse at length and authority on novels that she has never read.  Or if she has read them without understanding them. Give Brodsky credit, dear reader, for explicitly announcing her intention. Books should be edited for political reasons. For her reasons. Art can take a backseat. I hate the sensibility, I admire the honesty. Like an ancient Essene, or a modern Jain, she strives for irreproachable correctness in every action. But her zeal is more admirable because it is more exigent than their’s. The tenets of her creed are not eternal, but submit to the shifting caprices of Midwestern colleges and a few outposts along the coasts. If I had half as much dedication…

What I worry about is reduction. I can summarize with the lapidary phrase “Everything flows” the philosophy of Heraclitus. But what a weak reading. It consigns him to purgatory–remembered but hardly celebrated.

Take, for a moment, this synthesis by Borges.

Nils Runeberg proposes the opposite motive: a hyperbolic and even unlimited asceticism. The ascetic, for the greater glory of God, vilifies and mortifies his flesh; Judas did the same with his spirit. He renounced honor, morality, peace and kingdom of heaven, just as others, less heroically, renounce pleasure. With terrible lucidity he premeditated his sins. In adultery there is usually tenderness and abnegation; in homicide, courage; in profanity and blasphemy, a certain satanic luster. Judas chose those sins untouched by any virtue: violation of trust and betrayal. He acted with enormous humility, he believed himself unworthy of being good.

Think of the reading that began with Trigger Warning: Regicide. Or Theocide. Or Homicide. Much more consider the word conspiracy. Should that also be included and if it were consider the new meanings. Consider what has been lost. The word changes the meaning of the paragraph. Trigger warnings are edits. They are alterations of the text. It is only a difference of degrees, rather than a change of principle, between removing words. When I add a word I necessarily remove meaning, and relationships, just as if I took a word out. Some, either through stultifying or stupefying ignorance, dodge this last conclusion. Brodsky does not. For that I admire her. Be honest about writing profanities.

Notice the remarkable alacrity with which the poverty, and that is the only word I have for it, of past works will have been officially forgotten and paved over, such that deep social difference is denied or homogenized and even the most recent and contested past is available only in this nostalgic plastic reproduction carefully bracketed by authorities. In an perverse sense this, I believe, is the only way the current of thought is credible. It is the sign on the highway of forgetting. We’re all happy, except me because I am never happy, to travel on it. It may be an inauthentic journey. It may lead us to some disturbing areas. But it is an inauthenticity that is, as it were, authentically created. This effort at forgetting is not contrived. There are several people, hundreds if not thousands of people, that are sincere about forgetting.